Wednesday, October 27, 2021
48.0°F

What does Whitefish deserve?

by Carol Atkinson and Mike Jenson
| October 13, 2021 1:00 AM

It’s an important question. Especially these days as Whitefish grows exponentially and garners national media attention.

We’re certainly not the first such community to struggle with growth issues — density, traffic, environmental impact, housing costs. And we won’t be the last.

But each of these communities — including Whitefish — really has only one chance to get it right. To preserve their community’s essence and quality of life. Our chance is now.

So, what’s the answer? The issues are complex and there are likely several solutions.

However, there is a clear answer to the development proposed for the intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive, currently known as Mountain Gateway, which the Whitefish Planning Board will consider on Oct. 21.

Whitefish deserves better.

Mountain Gateway is being promoted by a development group called Arim Mountain Gateway, which wants to build 270 apartments, 24 townhomes, 24 condominiums and a 20,000 square foot commercial development on a 31-acre site that straddles Big Mountain Road.

To sweeten their proposal, the developers plan to donate 1.5 acres of land for a new fire station. They also want to construct a roundabout at the intersection to ease traffic issues.

That’s what the developers are promoting publicly. However, their several hundred-page application features a host of annexations, re-zoning and variance requests, nuances and inconsistencies that the public wouldn’t see without taking the time to look.

For example, the application says the roundabout will “provide a great solution to an existing problem intersection on a high traffic corridor providing improved traffic flow and enhanced safety.”

It’s good that they acknowledge the issue. Their sentiment seems noble. However, the “existing problem intersection”—which is under the authority of the Montana Department of Transportation—is not currently hosting a 300 plus unit residential and commercial development. Outside of their suggestion to add a new S.N.O.W. Bus stop, the developers provide no alternatives for easing the burden of the additional 500 plus cars — slowly leaking oil — that will continuously be entering and exiting the development.

Think Whitefish has traffic and emergency access issues now? Think again.

Whitefish deserves better.

An additional fire station also seems like a noble gesture. We do need another one. But let’s not be taken with what looks like a developer’s largesse. What’s needed is another fire station in the proper context.

The developers are donating the land as a mechanism to qualify their proposal under the city’s public benefit requirements for new developments. They are not funding the fire station’s construction, operating cost or staffing. It’s a huge “IF.” Will we ever see a fire station there? We just don’t know.

The developers also are trying to address our community’s affordable housing issue by setting aside 32 apartments with deed restrictions to ensure affordability for area workers. Another seemingly grand gesture.

Again, it’s the details. Mountain Gateway would displace the existing eight units that qualify as low-rent, and in no way, shape or form does their gesture fall under or qualify as affordable housing.

What’s needed most is to slow this process down so the people of Whitefish can understand what is happening here and so the City can re-look at its conflicted Growth Policy. There’s too much at stake to let Mountain Gateway roll through an approval process without some incisive thinking and questions.

Whitefish deserves better.

Carol Atkinson is a 35-year Whitefish resident and a community philanthropist and fundraiser. Mike Jenson is a Whitefish native and its former mayor. Both are board members of Flathead Families for Responsible Growth at www.whitefishdevelopment.org.