Board reluctantly recommends gas station on Highway 93

by Daniel McKay
Whitefish Pilot | March 24, 2020 1:11 PM

The Whitefish Planning Board last week recommended approval for a new gas station and convenience store at Whitefish’s south entrance by a 4-3 vote.

Board members Toby Scott, Scott Freudenberger, John Ellis and Steve Qunell voted in favor of the recommendation, while Whitney Beckham, Allison Linville and John Middleton voted against.

The request, submitted by Town Pump, calls for constructing a building about 13,700-square-feet in size at the northeast corner of U.S. Highway 93 and Montana 40. In addition, two detached automobile fueling stations and one detached RV fueling station are planned.

Those on the board who voted for the proposal were bittersweet.

John Ellis lamented the fact that the city never purchased the land to preserve it, and agreed with several others that the gas stations entrances and exits on Highway 93 and Montana 40 will cause traffic problems in the area.

“The City of Whitefish has been derelict in not trying to preserve its own character. The city of Telluride spent $50 million to preserve the interests of Telluride, certainly the City of Whitefish could’ve come up with the money to buy this piece of property. But that’s water under the bridge,” Ellis said.

“Once we see that there’s nothing wrong with them developing this property as they want to do, I think they’ve done as good a job as can be done,” Ellis added. “I think the architecture is great, I think the landscaping is great. If you drive down Highway 93 towards Whitefish, this building looks like a palace compared to some of the things there.”

Scott and Qunell agreed.

“It gives me heartburn to think there’s going to be a gas station here,” Qunell said. “However, the views we see in the architectural drawings look good. Hopefully it’ll look as good in person.”

Middleton, who voted against, took issue with the 15-year-old traffic study the Montana Department of Transportation said did not need to be updated for the proposal.

“How reliable could a 15-year-old traffic study be? We’re not looking at the same community that we were 15 years ago. It’s already a busy traffic intersection,” Middleton said. “I question the reliability of the study that was conducted that long ago, considering the amount of traffic increases we’ve been experiencing since then, and it’s only going to increase.”

The traffic study done in 2005 was completed for the property for multiple commercial uses, Jason Egeline of CWG Architects said during the meeting.

“The site was originally proposed to be developed as a drugstore, pharmacy and restaurant trading post. The number of vehicle trips per day that were anticipated for that original development were 2,400 vehicles,” Egeline said. “Today’s use, as determined by MDT, will provide far less of an impact from a traffic standpoint.”

Egeline added he estimates a total of 500 to 600 vehicle trips per day for the development as proposed, noting he believes the majority of people coming through and using the gas station are already those who would be driving by on their normal commutes regardless.

During public comment, the property’s neighbor, Janet Donahue, voiced her concerns about the project, namely the traffic, smells and other unwanted effects.

“My concern, other than the traffic, is the diesel smell that will be in my backyard, the diesel runoff that will go into my yard. Several hundred cars a day at that gas station? What is that going to do to my air quality, to the hospital’s air quality?” Donahue said. “People will be crossing through my yard from the sports field to get to the gas station, because we all know kids, they’re not going to want to use the sidewalk when they can just shoot through my yard.”

During public comment, Leo Keene also shared some of the board members’ feelings about the property being a missed opportunity.

“At the time the for sale sign came up on the property, about three or four years ago, I came to the City Council and during the public comment period, I said if we don’t do something right now about this property, we’re going to lose a very beautiful approach to Whitefish,” he said. “I guess I’m disgusted more than anything that we’re at this point, that we’ve lost this opportunity.”

Tom Thomas was the only member of the public to speak in favor of the development. Thomas argued that as the city has tightened down on what developments can go downtown, it’s also been squeezing out other potential businesses and creating traffic.

“Town Pump cannot exist where it’s at right now. You can’t get in, and you can’t get out. They’re losing business, and they’ve been a big part of this town for a long, long time, so they looked for a better location. You have made it extremely difficult to be part of this town with the way you’ve raised the bar [for zoning regulations].” Thomas said. “You can’t keep cramming it downtown. You have to let buildings do business.”

A conditional use permit is required for gas stations and convenience stores in the WB-2 zoning district. The city growth policy designates the property as suburban residential, which does not match the zoning. City water and sewer mains would be extended to serve the property. Access would be from an existing approach off Montana 40 and an unnamed private roadway on the north side of the property connected to Highway 93.

The building’s design is meant to look as if it is an older building that’s been added onto, Egeline said during the meeting. It features a brick exterior, in different colors at different ends of the building, complemented by a wood finish over the entrance.

The design is unique to Town Pump, Egeline said, despite the business being a franchise.

“The way this building was designed was to look as if it was an initial structure that was added onto over time to keep the scale of it down, to give it some historical context,” he said. “You won’t find another Town Pump with this packet of materials combined in this fashion. We wanted to go the extra mile and make sure this building would not have any perceived notion of a franchise structure.”

The building will still have the standard Town Pump signage and branding, however.

The property was annexed into the city last year at the request of the Baur Family Partnership. The property is about 5.4 acres in size.

The project is required under city regulations to provide 46 parking spaces, according to the planning staff report, and the developer is planning to provide 71 spaces.

The developer is required to landscape a minimum of 6% of the property and the parking lot must be landscaped, and provided a minimum tree density for the property. The planning staff report says the plan meets these requirements.

A new sidewalk would be installed along the entire frontage of the proposed street on the north side of the property. The city is encouraging the developer to work with North Valley Hospital to connect the new sidewalk with the hospital’s path around its campus.

The gas station is expected to be open 24 hour per day, seven days per week.

During the meeting, the board also recommended approval for a request by Mireille Bierens for a conditional use permit to construct an accessory apartment with a single-family home at 553 Park Avenue, and a request by Joseph and Jill Courtney for a conditional use permit to construct a guest house located at 535 Colorado Ave.

City Council will consider the requests at their April 6 meeting at City Hall.