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Citizens group forms in opposition to proposed housing development

by HEIDI DESCH
Whitefish Pilot | October 27, 2021 1:00 AM

A group of community members has come together in response to the proposed Mountain Gateway development project at the base of Big Mountain.

They’ve formed a nonprofit organization called Flathead Families for Responsible Growth raising concerns about the impact the large project will have on Whitefish, but also saying they want to advocate for responsible growth across the community.

The group formed after plans were released this fall for the Mountain Gateway project proposed for the junction of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive. The plan calls for 318 housing units along with commercial development at the intersection.

The project went before the Whitefish Planning Board on Thursday garnering comments from several members of the group as well as dozens of others. The board opted to continue the public hearing to its next meeting on Nov. 18.

“A development of this magnitude will forever change our community,” Whitney Geiger, a board member of Flathead Families for Responsible Growth, told the planning board during the meeting.

Geiger says while the Mountain Gateway project was the catalyst for Flathead Families forming, the group wants to guide responsible growth for all of Whitefish and make sure that the character of the community is retained. She notes that the group is not “anti-development” understanding that property owners have certain rights, but says development also should not be at the expense of a neighborhood or exacerbate safety issues.

“There’s a lot of rapid change happening,” Geiger told the Pilot. “We want to inform the public and make sure everyone knows what’s happening.”

The group’s board of directors includes several longtime Whitefish residents and community organizers. In addition to Geiger, directors are Jeff Allen, Carol Atkinson, Brad Bulkley, John Collins, Murray Craven, Richard Hildner, Mike Jenson and Carolyn Pitman.

Mike Jenson, former mayor of Whitefish, says the group’s goal is to ensure planning in advance of growth.

“We’re a diverse group of Whitefish citizens who are your neighbors and fellow community members,” Jenson said. “We want to bring a greater perspective ahead of time to make sure we don’t become the next Tahoe or Jackson Hole. Responsible growth doesn’t happen after the fact.”

The group has hired a traffic engineer and a hydrology firm to provide opinions on the project. It also hired Weinberg & Hromadka law firm, along with David K.W. Wilson Jr. of Morrison Sherwood Wilson and Deola, to provide a legal response to Mountain Gateway.

Flathead Families says the development presents a public safety danger, could have a negative impact on Whitefish Lake, with plans for four-story buildings it doesn’t match the neighborhood and doesn’t provide a clear community benefit.

Carol Atkinson says there are critical transportation and safety issues to consider around the development, but the issue goes far beyond the specific proposal.

“We have to be thoughtful about this,” she said. “If this happens it will not be the last development.”

The group raises concerns about the impact hundreds of housing units would have on an already busy intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive, along with the corresponding Wisconsin Avenue corridor into downtown. In addition, the group says there is inadequate road infrastructure to handle a mass evacuation in the event of a wildfire or other disaster in the area.

“If there’s a fire, there’s no other way out than on Wisconsin,” Jenson said. “There are hundreds of homes already in that area and they all drive the same two-lane road to get out — it’s the largest cul de sac in the state of Montana.”

In addition, the group says that the developers’ proposal to provide 32 deed-restricted affordable apartments is just not enough. They say there are eight rentals on the property already, so the net result would only be 24 affordable units.

While the developers have proposed donating 1.51 acres for a future fire station, funding for the station itself would fall to the city.

Flathead Families say the housing and fire station isn’t enough of a community benefit to warrant the request by the developers of Mountain Gateway for the planned unit development that’s needed for the proposed density and design.

In addition, the group says the Wisconsin Avenue Corridor plan adopted in 2018 needs to be updated to reflect the growth that’s happened in the area since and a traffic study needs to be done to evaluate the intersection where the development is proposed along with Wisconsin.

“This needs to be addressed and these guiding documents need to be up to date,” Geiger said.

The group’s organizers note that while they formed in reaction to the Mountain Gateway project, they plan to be proactive going forward to ensure proper planning for development in Whitefish. They stress the desire to make sure citizens are educated about what’s happening regarding growth in Whitefish.

“This isn’t about shutting the door on development, this is about responsible growth,” Jenson said. “We want to encourage people to not hold back about getting involved because this is about the future of Whitefish.”

After the planning board makes a decision on the Mountain Gateway project, their recommendation will be forwarded to City Council for a final decision.

For more information, visit the group’s website at whitefishdevelopment.org