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Council rejects Mountain Gateway development planned for Big Mountain Road

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | February 8, 2022 4:00 PM

Whitefish City Council on Monday turned down a controversial housing project proposed at the base of Big Mountain, saying one of the largest residential developments in the history of the city would be out of place at the proposed location.

Councilors voted 5-1 denying a request for a planned unit development that would have allowed for the construction of 318 residential units on 32.7 acres at the intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive. The project was being proposed by Arim Mountain Gateway LLC.

Councilor Ben Davis said the vote was one of the most difficult he’s faced while serving on the council, saying that he has wrestled with it for weeks.

“The reality is that we do need housing and we do need it badly,” he said. “What we have before us is one proposal that may help with that, but on the other hand there are a lot of legitimate concerns we’ve heard from a lot of people.”

Davis said he looked to the city’s Wisconsin Avenue corridor plan that says any development there should respect the character of the neighborhood.

“The problem for me here is that this just seems like too much,” he said. “It’s taking an area that is generally envisioned and relied upon as something close to single-family homes and we have a project that is the largest residential development in the history of the community.”

Councilor Steve Qunell, who was the sole no vote, interjected and asked to provide comment, noting that he had sat through 14 hours of public comment on the proposal, but that the council seemed to be taking “less than 10 minutes to deny” the project. He said the council was ignoring the city planning staff, who recommended approval of the project, while listening to a community group organized around opposing the development.

“I don’t think that’s doing a great service to the community,” he said. “We can’t make a decision based on the will of the people; we have to make a decision based on the facts. If we solely bend to the will of the people when they disagree, that is doing a disservice to what we are up here for.”

He said the project provides a “clear community benefit,” noting that the plan includes affordable housing units, land for a fire station and traffic improvements.

“What we’re about to do is send a message that Whitefish is closed to the working class,” he said. “We have been faced with project after project to include affordable housing in our community, and every time we sit up here and deny it. I can’t do it anymore. We are at a crisis and we have to address it.”

Councilor Andy Feury said he couldn’t disregard the fact that while some affordable housing is part of the plan there’s no guarantee of the cost of the other roughly 200 units in the project.

“I can’t myopically put blinders on and see only housing,” Feury said. “I can’t not see all of the other challenges in this piece of property.”

PRIOR TO the vote, James Barnett, the lead developer and owner of the property, said Mountain Gateway seems to have become a scapegoat for a lot of issues that have already been happening in the area including traffic congestion.

“No matter where you build affordable housing, those same people are going to drive up that road to the ski hill and drive up that road to work,” he said.

He said the project is offering a list of community benefits that other projects haven’t offered, going so far as to say that even if a requested variance were not approved as part of the project that the benefits would still be included.

“We’re offering a real solution that can have a huge impact on rentals and affordable housing,” he told the council. “I’m proud of this project.”

The developers had planned to donate 8.8 acres of land that could be used to develop future affordable housing at an estimated 48 units, and to construct 32 deed-restricted affordable housing units as well.

The project had called for 270 apartment units, 36 townhouse units and 12 condominium units.

By the right, the site could be developed with 374 units without any requirement that those units be deed-restricted as affordable housing.

The developer had been offering a list of community benefits in exchange for a zoning deviation that would have allowed for a portion of the multi-family buildings to be four stories. In addition to the donation of land for housing and extending a trail along the west side of Big Mountain Road, the developer also planned to dedicate 1.5 acres to the city for a future fire station, create a SNOW bus stop and construct a roundabout at the intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive.

Developers were also asking to rezone just under 4 acres on East Lakeshore Drive with blended residential and limited business district zoning to allow for a neighborhood commercial development. Council also denied that request, 5-1.

DRAWING GREAT interest in the community, roughly 200 people watched the meeting online while council chambers at City Hall were standing-room only as people continued to provide additional hours of comments.

Those speaking in favor of the project said they support the affordable housing units that are planned, along with constructing necessary rental housing for the community.

Those who have opposed it said they’re concerned about worsening traffic and safety issues in an already congested area, and are concerned about preserving the character of the town.

Kate Berry, who noted she is a beneficiary of Whitefish’s affordable housing program, said the development does magnify the issues of traffic along the Wisconsin Avenue corridor and brings up concerns regarding wildfire, but the property will be developed whether or not it includes affordable housing.

“There’s no part of me that thinks these are not valid concerns. However, I want to urge you to consider that there are humans on the other side of this,” she told the council. “People are being displaced left and right in our community and this development offers one small drop in a growing bucket of a problem that is not going anywhere.”

Velvet Sullivan-Phillips said that roughly 20 years ago when she served on City Council, the city was facing issues even then regarding affordable housing. She said the development would be a way to address housing in a way that the city failed to do in the past.

“When I was on council my main concern was affordable housing and protecting the integrity of neighborhoods,” she said. “What I always seemed to go for was protecting the integrity of neighborhoods, and the cost of always doing that was that I didn’t protect the integrity of the whole community and the integrity of the workers.”

Whitney Geiger, a board member of the nonprofit Flathead Families for Responsible Growth that formed in opposition to the project, told the council that the development would create a permanent shift in the character of the community and would not create the housing needed.

“The community efforts focused on creating affordable housing to this point have been directed at a principle that directly ties affordable housing to development and growth; we've repeatedly seen the flaws in this system,” she said. “Making affordable housing tied to development is inherently flawed and will leave us without any real solutions.”

Richard Hildner, another member of Flathead Families and a former city councilor, said that there should be many reasons to deny the project, but his main concern is the risk from wildfire in the area with a single way out over the Wisconsin Avenue viaduct.

“This area has been identified as high risk,” he said. “I urge you to deny the Mountain Gateway project, to not do so would be to put another 600 to 800 persons in grave peril from wildfire.”

SEVERAL COMMENTS on Monday also revolved around a series of emails that recently came to light regarding the project. In emails, wealthy donors threatened to cease support of future affordable housing projects in the community if the Mountain Gateway project gained approval. However, city officials said that the city legally cannot base its decision on possible private funding.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, former city councilor Ryan Hennen had some harsh words for those making threats.

“If you don’t get your way, that’s OK, you don’t take your ball and go home,” he said. “You don’t hold a small town financially hostage.”