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U.S. 93 plan focuses on vision for city’s south gateway

Daily Inter Lake | December 22, 2021 1:00 AM

An entrance to Whitefish that represents the character of the community. That’s the vision outlined in the City of Whitefish’s recently adopted Highway 93 Corridor Plan.

As a document intended to guide the corridor in the next decade, the plan “envisions a corridor representative of the Whitefish character with abundant green spaces dominated by views of surrounding mountain ranges and the Whitefish River,” the executive summary of the plan says. “It should be a walkable and bikeable corridor with a variety of uses and services available.”

City Council earlier this month adopted the plan after making a few last-minute adjustments to the document largely regarding transportation issues.

June Hanson, a member of the corridor plan steering committee, said the committee worked for three years and solicited public comments on the plan. She said there’s urgency in adopting the plan because growth is exploding in Whitefish thus making it even more important to have a plan in place to help shape the future of the gateway to the town.

“We have done our due diligence to develop the plan before you,” she told Council. “We feel this plan reflects the desires of the community. As we all know growth is unprecedented in Whitefish right now. The plan is a visionary document that tries to balance the desire of our community and the needs of developers.”

The corridor plan becomes an amendment to the city’s growth policy.

City Council made a few additions to the plan focusing on transportation issues, particularly in Section B of the plan, which extends from south of the Whitefish river to the city limits near the Highway 40 intersection. The document points out that transportation issues in the section include traffic congestion, vehicle noise and reduced level of services at intersections.

Councilor Steve Qunell said development needs to be discouraged in areas where it would not connect at regulated intersections and the city needs to be working to improve the transportation grid.

“We have a pretty big disconnect between our transportation plan and the uses that we’re going to allow down there,” Qunell said. “This came to a head at a recent meeting with a proposal to put a hotel down there.”

Council this fall denied a request to construct a hotel just off Highway 93 saying it would generate too much traffic.

Planning Director Dave Taylor says the plan specifically looks at addressing transportation issues throughout the corridor, but also implementing standards that would assist with the vision outline in the plan for the way the corridor should look.

“While all the transportation issues can’t get solved in a plan, the plan has to be adopted to be implemented so that we can begin to work on the issues,” he said. “There are goals and objectives in the plan that have implementation items for landscaping standards, parking lot location standards and breaking up large parking lots, encouraging commercial pockets, encouraging green spaces to break up the existing strip.”

Much of the discussion prior to Council’s vote to approve, centered on the plan’s goal of creating a new highway transitional zone intended for use south of Highway 40.

The new zoning is intended to be used for areas currently in the county that are zoned secondary business but would be rezoned if they are annexed into the city.

Taylor said Council has made it clear that they don’t want retail commercial development in that area and creating the transitional zoning is part of that. The new zoning would allow for less-intensive uses and provide for more buffering and protection to adjacent uses, he noted.

“This is designed to have low intensity uses that respect the area as a gateway to Whitefish,” Taylor said. “ “That zoning is to affect how it develops and control some of the uses there. If we don’t have that we’re just going to see development out there without any oversight.”

THE LONG-RANGE plan looks at how the corridor will grow over the next 10 years in terms of land use, transportation, environment and open space. The plan includes goals, objectives and implementation items for the corridor.

The boundary for the plan extends from the edges of downtown at Sixth Street on Baker Avenue and Spokane Avenue to 2 miles south of Montana 40. It breaks the area into three different sections providing a vision for each section in the future.

The plan divides the corridor into three distinct segments with a vision for each segment and setting goals to achieve that vision. For each segment, the plan looks at land use, transportation, and environment and open space as it applies to each.

SEGMENT A is the northern end between East Sixth Street and the Whitefish River. It’s a mix of residential and residential structures converted into commercial uses.

The vision set in the plan is that this segment serves as a gateway to downtown Whitefish and a transition from the highway commercial uses to the residential and light commercial in the downtown area. Buildings in the section should remain small-scale and the urban tree canopy should be maintained and expanded where lacking. Public green spaces and recreation areas should be abundant, the plan says.

A large goal for the section is to replace the Whitefish River culverts with a bridge designed to serve as a transition or entrance to downtown. The bridge would also serve to allow for better pedestrian and bicycle access in the area.

SEGMENT B extends from the Whitefish River to the city limits near Montana 40. The parcels in the section are relatively large with large commercial buildings, and some multi-family housing.

The vision for this segment is to maintain its character as a commercial corridor with a diversity of businesses.

Goals are to provide better public access to the river and increase public green space, and improve traffic flow in the area. Improving the visual character of the environment is also a goal with installing decorative street lighting and adding landscaping including street trees along sidewalks.

The plan calls for Highway 93 in this segment to include a landscaped median in the center of the highway and a protected bike lane along the highway.

SEGMENT C extends from the city limits near Montana 40 south for about 1.5 miles to the southern edge of the city’s growth policy’s future land use map boundary. The segment has a combination of commercial uses lining the highway with residential uses behind, and agricultural uses farther south.

The goal for the segment would be to encourage Flathead County to enforce zoning and discourage land uses outside of the city limits that are inconsistent with the community’s vision for the area.

The city’s growth policy adopted in 2007 calls for the creation of corridor plans for all the major transportation corridors. Plans were previously completed for Highway 93 West in 2015 and Wisconsin Avenue in 2018.