Planning board looks at zoning change regarding housing program

by HEIDI DESCH
Editor | November 18, 2020 1:00 AM

The Whitefish Planning Board is set to consider a change that would lower the number of units allowed for an administrative conditional use permit for housing projects in the WR-4 zone.

The board is set to meet on Thursday, Nov. 19 at 6 p.m. remotely via WebEx.

The proposal looks to amend the WR-4 high density multi-family residential zoning district regarding administrative CUPs so that projects with four or less units could be approved under the administrative process.

Currently, projects with a total of eight units go through the administrative CUP.

The change was suggested by the city’s Strategic Housing Plan Steering Committee because it’s concerned that projects are being constructed right under the threshold of seven units in order to avoid the city’s Legacy Homes Program that requires most new residential development to provide 20% of the project as deed-restricted affordable housing.

Currently, seven or fewer units are permitted as a use by right, an administrative permit is required for projects between eight and 18 units, and full CUP, which requires approval by City Council, is required for more than 18 units.

City Planner Wendy Compton-Ring says planning staff does not support the zoning amendment because the Legacy Homes Program is so new.

“We simply have not had enough projects during the past 16 months to determine whether this aspect of the overall Legacy Homes Program is failing us,” she said in her staff report.

She said that other communities have found that it can take three to five years to see the benefits of an affordable housing program, so planning staff is recommending at this time to continue monitoring the situation.

The planning staff report does note that there could be some positives from reducing the requirement for an administrative CUP from eight to four units.

Since the adoption of the Legacy Homes Program, there have been three projects approved, each with seven units. Those projects would have provided 1.4 units each — three rentals plus a free in lieu of for the partial units.

If a project were built as a use by right without a permit, it would presumably be a smaller project with less units and therefore be less impactful to the neighborhood, the report notes.

Planning staff, however, has concerns about the proposed change because maintaining a certain number of units as use by right was a concession during the creation of the Legacy Homes Program.

Since the implementation of the program, planning staff says they’ve observed developers intentionally design projects below the threshold that requires a CUP to avoid the requirement to provide affordable housing, which has resulted in projects with lesser density.

“By dropping the standard even more, staff is concerned we will see even less dense projects in our highest density zoning district,” Compton-Ring said in her report. “If we do not see the higher-density projects proposed for the areas zoned high density near our schools, shopping and highway corridors, where will high density projects be located?”

If projects are pushed farther from the center of town, she noted, then the city’s workforce will be forced to drive further from where affordable rentals are located.

Planning staff is recommending the planning board deny the change.

Also on the agenda are two requests for conditional use permits for accessory apartments.

Jackson Davis of Seven Hills Construction, on behalf of Keenan Gallagher, is requesting a CUP to construct an accessory apartment above a new garage at 614 Somers Ave.

Jacqueline Culver is requesting a CUP for an accessory apartment over a new garage at 619 Columbia Ave.

The city is encouraging individuals to provide written public comment to the Planning and Building Department at dtaylor@cityofwhitefish.org or deliver it by noon on Nov. 19 to City Hall.

To attend the meeting virtually, go to https://tinyurl.com/y5xx9avy