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Council holds second hearing on extending southern boundary

by HEIDI DESCH
Whitefish Pilot | June 9, 2021 1:00 AM

Whitefish City Council for a second time on June 21 will hold a public hearing on potential changes to the city’s urban growth boundary and extension of services plan.

The urban growth boundary is an estimate for where growth is likely to occur in the next five to 10 years and where the city is able to extend services. The extension of services plan is required by state law and sets out how the city will provide services such as water and sewer to properties that are not currently served, including those already within the city limits.

These changes would allow for future annexation, but that would have to occur after future public hearings and likely at the request of the property owners who want to be annexed.

Only roughly a half dozen people provided comment on May 17 when Council held its first public hearing on the matter. Council chose to delay a decision saying it wanted more input on the issue before voting.

A decades-long policy has placed the southern urban growth boundary at the Montana 40 and U.S. Highway 93 intersection because of an unwillingness to extend services any farther south than that intersection.

However, recent enquiries from owners and potential developers of properties directly south and west of the intersection, which are not located inside the urban growth boundary but would like city services, has prompted placing the question before Council about a change in that policy.

In order to obtain city services, the properties would have to be added to the urban growth boundary.

If the properties become part of the urban growth boundary, the property owners wanting city services would be required to annex. The benefit of this, the city planning department notes, is that once a property is annexed, it is subject to the city’s regulations and standards for architectural review, landscaping, setbacks, dark skies lighting, signs and building permits.

The city would also reassign zoning from the county’s district to a comparable city district, and special zoning conditions or a development agreement could potentially be applied as part of the annexation.

In return for extending services and subsequent annexation, the city gains some ability to direct and guide the commercial development that is already happening, and will continue to happen, regardless of whether the city changes its policy, the planning department notes. Another benefit would be eliminating the need for septic systems in high groundwater areas, and the city’s water quality standards would also apply, as well as the city’s more restrictive wetland buffers.

The planning department notes, there are some potential concerns with including these areas in the urban growth boundary are that the availability of sewer and water services could spur more intense development than what might occur with just septic systems and wells. Properties in the urban growth boundary area also might not request services and annexation, so commercial development could continue as it has, the city notes.

The city does have the option of annexing any properties that become wholly surrounded by other properties within the city.

Cost for extending services is the responsibility of the landowner or developer and not the city.

The county in 2017 adopted a corridor plan and overlay zone for properties south of Whitefish, and rezoned about 490 acres along the highway with business zoning.

Prior to that land south of the intersection was zoned by Flathead County as five acre suburban agriculture. Despite the zoning, there have been many properties developed for commercial uses over the years, some of which have been there since the 1970s.

City Council meets in Council Chambers at City Hall, 415 East Second Street, starting at 7:10 pm. Written comments may also be submitted in advance to the City Clerk at mhowke@cityofwhitefish.org or delivered by 4 p.m. on June 21 to City Hall.