Council reluctantly approves new design standards

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City Council last week hesitantly approved new development design standards for the city’s zoning code.

The zoning text amendment adds two new subsections to the code with development standards for multifamily developments as well as mixed-use and nonresidential developments. It is a companion to the inclusionary zoning Legacy Homes Program.

Councilor Frank Sweeney suggested Council delay a decision until it could hold a work session on the ordinance.

“We need to make sure this is going to address neighborhood compatibility,” he said.

However, Councilor Andy Feury disagreed.

“We should pass this,” he said. “We pass emergency ordinances all the time. We can have a workshop on this later to work on it, but if we don’t pass this now we may end up in a spot where we don’t have anything.”

Council ultimately approved the ordinance unanimously, but also decided to hold a work session on it on June 17, before voting on the second reading of the ordinance on July 1. City staff pointed out that a delay in voting would mean the city could for a few months be without the development design standards to apply to potential projects in the meantime.

The changes provide more stringent review criteria for both new multifamily apartment development and commercial mixed-use or business park development. Review criteria apply to building orientation, protection of natural features, landscaping and parking lot standards, open space requirements, pedestrian and bicycle accommodations, and neighborhood scale and compatibility.

During public comments, Mayre Flowers said more work was needed on the design standards.

“These don’t offer standards that are significantly different,” she said. “Given the rapid growth in Whitefish we need changes to this.”

To implement the Strategic Housing Plan, city staff lowered the threshold for when conditional use permits are required for multifamily housing projects in order to capture more developments in the affordable housing program, according to the planning staff report, and part of that change involved broadening the use of the administrative conditional use permit tool, and these standards provide a more in-depth review process prior to any approval by staff or the Planning Board and City Council.

Planning Director Dave Taylor said multifamily developments fall under the CUP requirements based on the number of units or if multiple buildings are proposed on one lot, and mixed-use buildings only require a CUP if they exceed bulk and scale limitations or if the number of dwelling units exceeds what is allowed by right.

The standards will apply to all new multifamily buildings with three or more dwelling units, mixed-use that include commercial and residential and commercial in one building and non-residential building development.

For the building orientation and site design requirements currently only the design is dictated by the setback requirements in the zoning. Under the new requirements for multifamily and mixed-use and commercial buildings, the new regulations require direct pedestrian access, an emphasis on providing bike and pedestrian routes into the site, requiring that parking be behind buildings and adds multiple building design standards.

Under neighborhood scale for multifamily buildings, the new provisions say that new buildings “must, to the extent possible, be compatible with or compliment the architectural character of neighboring buildings” by breaking large multifamily buildings into house-size building elements.

Under neighborhood scale for mixed-use and non-residential buildings, the new provisions says that new buildings must “mitigate impacts with neighborhood properties” including to articulate buildings to mirror adjacent neighborhood patterns and use open space and preserve vegetation and landscaping for buffering.

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