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Planning board recommends denial of development at base of Big Mountain

by HEIDI DESCH
Whitefish Pilot | November 19, 2021 12:00 PM

After the Whitefish Planning Board on Thursday recommended denial of a large-scale development for the base of Big Mountain, the ultimate decision on the project now falls to City Council in the New Year.

The planning board voted 3-1 to deny the project citing concerns over the impact the project with more than 300 housing units would have regarding traffic on an already congested Wisconsin Avenue and placing the commercial portion of the project in a residential neighborhood.

“This is too much, too fast,” board member Whitney Beckham said, simply.

“We don’t have the infrastructure on Wisconsin Avenue to handle the number of housing units,” board member John Ellis added. “And the commercial space, I can’t say that doesn’t change the neighborhood.”

But planning board member Steve Qunell, who was the only member to vote against the motion for denial, said while it was hard to ignore the list of concerns, ultimately the project will provide necessary housing for the community.

“My question to everyone in the community is, do we really value affordable housing for our workforce or not,” he said. “They are willing to deed restrict 32 units as affordable and it’s hard for me to say no to that.”

Arim Mountain Gateway LLC is requesting a planned unit development that would allow for the construction of 318 housing units on 32.7 acres on the north side of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive intersection.

The developer is voluntarily participating in the city’s Legacy Homes Program providing 32 deed-restricted affordable rental units. The developer has said the rent for those affordable units would range from $745 per month for a studio apartment to $1,277 for a two-bedroom apartment, depending on income.

James Barnett, one of the developers involved in the project, said the project aims to provide a number of housing options.

“You don’t want all affordable housing because not everyone qualifies for that,” he said. “We’re also including market rate apartments that provide important housing. We want housing that is a range — affordable, middle range and homeownership.”

“We’re trying to build a community of people that live and work here,” he added.

The developer is also requesting conditional zoning for the project known as Mountain Gateway to allow for a commercial portion at the northeast corner of the intersection. The developer has said the commercial section could include a small grocery market and a daycare center. The planning board also voted 3-1 to recommend denial of the zoning change.

City Council is set to hold a public hearing on the application on Jan. 18.

LAST MONTH the planning board heard about four hours of public comment on the project and then another hour on Thursday. Comments were overwhelmingly against the project.

Most said the project is too dense, would add traffic to an already congested route into town and would add a larger number of housing in an area that could see a major wildfire. Those speaking in favor of the project say they support the affordable housing units that are planned along with constructing necessary rental housing for the community.

Richard Hildner, who serves as a board member of Flathead Families for Responsible Growth, told the planning board that it’s not a matter of if, but when a wildfire occurs on the face of Big Mountain forcing an evacuation. Flathead Families is a new nonprofit that formed in opposition to the project.

“It would be unconscionable of the board to approve this, putting 600 to 800 people in harm’s way,” he said.

Carl Moody said the project creates a big issue with traffic and the high density doesn’t fit with Whitefish.

“This has quality of life issues,” he said. “This whole area is subject to a massive acceleration of building because of COVID.”

Ed Docter, a business owner who has been advocating for workforce housing, said he was speaking in favor of the project knowing that opinion was unpopular with his neighbors.

“There is a lack of high density zoning anywhere in Whitefish,” he said. “It’s hard not to support this project. We’re losing a lot of apartments in town and this needs to have support.”

However, Carolyn Pitman, another board member of Flathead Families, suggested that Whitefish will find other ways to create affordable housing.

She talked about the many projects that have come as part of public and nonprofit partnerships such as the library, fitness center, sports complex and others.

ON THE WEST side of Big Mountain Road the project proposes a 270-unit rental community with 460 parking spaces. Two buildings with common open space are proposed to be clustered in the center of the property.

On the east side of Big Mountain Road, the project proposes 24 condo units at the north end and 24 townhouse units in the central portion with access off Big Mountain Road.

As part of the project, a new roundabout is proposed at the intersection of East Lakeshore Drive and Big Mountain Road. But because Big Mountain Road is a state road, the Montana Department of Transportation would decide what type of traffic device would be installed at the intersection.

THE PLAN on the west side calls for two vehicle access points that would be via Big Mountain Road and one would be on East Lakeshore Drive near the north end of the project to access the apartments.

There is proposed to be 8.85 acres of open space with two acres developed and the remaining left in its natural state.

A trail would run along the west side of Big Mountain Road connecting to the existing Wisconsin Avenue bike path on the south end.

On the east side of Big Mountain Road, a new internal street would also be constructed connecting East Lakeshore Drive to Big Mountain.

This area would include about 2 acres of open space with less than a half-acre developed.

On the east side of Big Mountain Road, the developer has set aside a location for a SNOW bus stop. On the west side of Big Mountain Road, the plans call for dedicating 1.5 acres for a future fire station.

By providing the housing and the land for the fire station, the developer is seeking a zoning deviation that would allow for four stories within the 40-foot building height limit for portions of the multi-family buildings. The standard is three stories.