Neighbors rally against apartment project

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A developer has submitted plans to the City of Whitefish to construct two apartment buildings on this lot between East Seventh Street and East Eighth Street. (Heidi Desch/Whitefish Pilot)

Residents surrounding an apartment project proposed to be sandwiched between Seventh and Eighth streets spoke for about an hour Monday night, telling Whitefish City Council the project would negatively impact their neighborhood.

Christina Larsen, who lives near the proposed project, told Council the city has an obligation to look at development in the community proactively rather than reactively.

“This town is moving in a direction that’s making daily life more difficult for full-time residents,” she said.

During public comment, Mariah Joos said when she purchased her home adjacent to the proposed project she knew that one day the property would be developed, but the neighborhood’s objection is to the density that is planned.

“Whitefish needs more affordable housing, but 36 units in two massive buildings here is too much,” she said. “We need affordable housing, but that doesn’t mean we need to accept whatever is put in front of us — we need to make sure that it makes sense.”

Central Ave WF is requesting a conditional use permit to construct two buildings containing 18 apartments on two lots on property near the new Muldown Elementary School under construction.

The apartment buildings would be two-stories in height and would contain six two-bedroom units, four one-bedroom units and eight studio units in each building. Access to the buildings would be from both Seventh and Eighth streets.

City Council on Monday voted 4-1 to delay a decision on request until its Jan. 21 meeting. Councilor Andy Feury was absent from the meeting.

Councilor Rebecca Norton said two weeks would allow time to see if any adjustments to the project could be made to mitigate the neighbors’ concerns.

“I would love to approve anything that brings us more housing, but this site is difficult,” Norton said. “To force this onto the neighborhood without seeing if some of the suggestions from the public can be fleshed out doesn’t make sense.”

Councilor Steve Qunell was the sole dissenting vote, saying Council shouldn’t delay the decision.

“The issues the neighbors have brought up won’t be solved in two weeks,” he said. “There is a lot of stress on this neighborhood and I understand that, but we have enough information to make a decision.”

Neighbors of the project submitted more than 50 letters and emails to the city outlining concerns around the project and more than a dozen folks Monday spoke to Council raising issue with the project. Of chief concern seems to be an increase in traffic in an area already congested by vehicles, particularly parents dropping children off at several schools and daycares in the neighborhood.

The traffic study for the project estimated that 196 new daily vehicle tips would be created as a result of the project and that no roadway capacity problems would be created in the area and no mitigation would be necessary.

This is the first project reviewed under the city’s Legacy Homes Program, requiring new development provide deed-restricted affordable housing at a level of 20% of the project. Seven units would be deed restricted as affordable housing including two two-bedroom, two one-bedroom and three studio apartments.

Aaron Wallace, with Montana Creative, is representing the developer on the project. He noted that the project was designed in consultation with city planning staff to provide deed-restricted affordable units, along with market rate units, that Whitefish is looking to add through its affordable housing program.

“The developer came up with this because we were told this is what the community wants,” he said. “If this is what the community wants — great, we will move forward.”

“Other developers are looking very heavily at this to see if we’re going to be treated fairly,” he added.

The affordable units are planned to be priced between $854 and $1,019 per month depending on the size of the units.

Wallace said if approval isn’t granted for the conditional use permit the developer could look at constructing 14 units with garages with potentially larger buildings on the site. He said rent for those could be $2,500 per month.

The property currently contains a single-family home and is located just west of the Church of the Nazarene and the Whitefish Christian Academy.

The project is also proposing to take advantage of a incentive that allows for reduced parking, and thus still meets city requirements by providing 54 parking spaces.

The planning staff report says the apartment buildings are considered infill and the density is consistent with surrounding multi-family developments to the north and east of the property. The property is zoned WR-4 high density multi-family residential.

The developer in October applied for two administrative conditional use permits for the project, but the planning department felt it was necessary to bump the project up to a higher level of review by sending it before the Planning Board and City Council for a vote.

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