Wednesday, June 23, 2021
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County board mulls whether Whitefish Lake is an airport

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | June 9, 2021 9:00 AM

Is Whitefish Lake an airport? Can it be considered a "landing field"? What's the difference between an aircraft hangar and a big garage that just happens to store a floatplane?

The Flathead County Board of Adjustment wrestled with those questions last week as a couple sought permission to build a hangar on their property near the north end of the lake.

Travis Denman, of Denman Construction, argued that his clients, David and Melissa Rubin, should be allowed to have a hangar at 761 Delrey Road because Montana law allows planes to land on public waters throughout the state, including Whitefish Lake.

But Mark Mussman, the county's planning and zoning director, said it would be a stretch to classify the lake as an airport, and that doing so could set a bad precedent for aviation facilities around lakes throughout the county.

Mussman rejected the property owners' application for a conditional-use permit in March, before it could reach the Board of Adjustment. Denman appealed, and the board heard arguments from both sides on June 1.

In a letter, Denman said his clients could dock their plane on the lake just outside their property, just like the planes that pick up and drop off visitors for tours at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake.

However, Denman said his clients would prefer to pull their plane out of the water using a rail system and store it in an "airplane hangar/boathouse."

"It is legal for aircrafts to land and take off from Whitefish Lake, so technically Whitefish Lake would then be serving as a landing field," Denman wrote. "Moreover, it is legal for aircrafts and boats to be docked, so it would seem pulling the plane out of the water into a storage building (just as boats do) would be more pleasing for both environmental and aesthetic reasons."

THE PROBLEM boiled down to semantics.

During last week's meeting, Mussman pointed to a section of state law that defines an airport as "an area of land or water that is intended or designed for the landing and takeoff of aircraft," as well as a similar definition in the county's zoning regulations.

In other words, Mussman argued, the county can't issue a permit for an aircraft hangar because that would imply the lake was "intended" or "designed" for use as an airport — no different from other airfields in Whitefish and Ferndale, or Glacier Park International Airport.

The Board of Adjustment didn't want to open that can of worms.

Board members Cal Dyck, Gina Klempel, Roger Noble and Tobias Liechti voted to deny the permit request, saying the laws and regulations should distinguish between an "airport" and a "landing field." The remaining member, Ole Netteberg, recused himself from the discussion and vote, citing a personal conflict of interest.

"I don't feel the need to set a precedent and say that all the natural lakes and whatnot are airfields. I think it's pretty clear, if you want to build a hangar, it needs to be in a designed airport," Liechti said. "I don't see Whitefish Lake as a designed airport. Unfortunately, that's the way the rules are written today."

Mussman and board members said the property owners could apply, however, for a permit to construct an "accessory building" of the same design and dimensions as their proposed hangar.

"We don't regulate what is stored in somebody's permitted accessory building," Mussman said.

Noble added, "It seems like it's kind of a nebulous or arbitrary decision in a way, because they're going to do anything that they want to do, no matter what. They're still going to build their garage."

If they build a rail system to move their boats or planes through the lakeshore protection zone, the property owners may also need a permit from the city of Whitefish, which years ago annexed the entire lake up to the low water mark.