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Council pushes decision on proposed Big Mountain Road housing development

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | January 19, 2022 2:00 PM

Following a continued deluge of public comment on a large mixed-use development proposed at the southern end of Big Mountain Road, Whitefish City Council on Tuesday chose to push back until next month a decision on the project.

Arim Mountain Gateway LLC is requesting a planned unit development that would allow for housing to include 318 residential units on 32.7 acres at the intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive. Developers are 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 chambers at Whitefish City Hall was standing room only Tuesday as council spent more than three hours hearing presentations on, asking questions about and listening to public comment on the project. Council received more than 800 written comments on the proposal prior to the meeting.

At the start of the meeting, Mayor John Muhlfeld said the decision would be moved to the council’s next meeting on Feb. 7, with the public comment being taken again at that meeting.

Councilor Frank Sweeney said he appreciated all those who provided comments.

“We’ve got some hard work ahead of us on this,” he said.

In explaining the details of the project, James Barnett, the lead developer on the project and owner of the property, said the land will be developed in some way and the current plan is the best way to assist with the lack of housing here.

“Growth in the valley is going to keep happening even if it’s tough to accept,” he said. “I’m very fortunate to have the opportunity to shape what happens on this site. I’ve attempted to lead the project in a way that benefits the community by providing long-term rentals instead of a subdivision with multi-million dollar homes that the majority of people can’t afford.”

The project calls for 270 apartment units, 36 townhouse units and 12 condominium units. The developer is volunteering to participate in the city’s Legacy Homes Program, agreeing to provide 32 deed-restricted rental units. Those units are estimated to be priced at a monthly rent of $745 for a studio apartment up to $1,277 for a two-bedroom apartment, depending on the income of the renter.

The developer is also including a land gift of 8.8 acres on the east side of Big Mountain Road for the purpose of affordable housing. The property would be donated to a nonprofit that develops permanently affordable housing and has the potential to be developed with 48 units for ownership.

A NONPROFIT group called Flathead Families for Responsible Growth was formed in response to the project, saying it will negatively impact water quality, traffic and the small-town way of life in Whitefish.

During public comment, Kim Wilson, an attorney representing Flathead Families, told council that there are key reasons why the development should be denied, including that the project does not preserve the character of the neighborhood and claiming that the project doesn’t provide adequate community benefit.

“This development generated enormous interest and a petition garnering more than 3,000 people who are opposed to it,” he said. “This development is not appropriated here and does not comport with the laws and regulations intended to regulate growth in the Whitefish community.”

John Collins, a member of Flathead Families, said the development will add significantly to the traffic congestion on Big Mountain Road and Wisconsin Avenue, add to wildfire concerns with public safety issues and plans for four-story buildings in what is now a low-profile neighborhood.

“Mountain Gateway represents overdevelopment at an inappropriate location,” he said. “The only reason Mountain Gateway has any support is the affordable housing component, which the developer has added as a sweetener.”

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.

Nathan Dugan said the project should be supported because the deed-restricted affordable units and the additional market-rate rental units are all needed for the community.

“We shouldn’t be shutting the door behind us,” he said. “Young adults should be able to come here and build a life without having to be wealthy first or ever.”

“Losing this vital housing will be devastating to the heart of the community of Whitefish as younger folks will no longer be able to move, raise their children or spend their free time here,” he added.

Noting that she works in health care, Ellie McMann said she and her fellow health-care workers can’t find housing despite having good-paying jobs.

“I grew up in Whitefish and recently moved back finding that I can’t find affordable housing that’s reasonable within Whitefish,” she said. “We have to have more housing and this development would almost triple the amount of affordable housing that we have.”

THE THREAT of wildland fire in the area has been brought up as a concern with adding additional residences in the area.

Richard Hildner, former Whitefish city councilor and fire behavior analyst, said in a recent letter to the editor that the project creates an unacceptable risk when it comes to fire, noting that the area only has one exit on East Lakeshore Drive and Wisconsin Avenue.

“Based on my 17 years of experience in wildland fire management, this project creates an unacceptable risk of catastrophic wildfire, and the associated loss of property and human life is just too great,” he wrote.

On the west side of Big Mountain Road, the plans call for dedicating 1.5 acres for a future fire station. Some have criticized the project for providing the land, but not the fire station.

Barnett pointed out that while the project is not constructing a fire station on the land it's donating, he says once constructed the development would add about $400,000 in property taxes to the city. He also noted that the buildings will be constructed meeting the latest fire codes including sprinklers.

“A fire station here is going to be very important in the future,” he said. “It’s needed with or without our development.”

Without the development there wouldn’t be the donation of land for the fire station, Barnett noted.

ADDING TRAFFIC to an already busy corridor has been another sticking point for those speaking against the project.

Pat LaTourelle told the council that Wisconsin Avenue has not changed in width or lanes since she moved to the city in 1975, and the increasing traffic is using the residential side streets to try to avoid the area, making an unsafe situation while pushing traffic onto Baker Avenue and narrow downtown streets.

“It is evident to all of us that Whitefish will continue to expand both north and south of the railroad tracks,” she said. “There is gridlock, and it’s more than just gridlock a few times per day.”

“We need more than one access north to south,” she added. “Let’s address the real problem and not let Whitefish implode.”

Nick Polumbus, representing Whitefish Mountain Resort, said the resort is opposed to the project because of the related transportation issues, including evacuation during an emergency.

“We feel pretty strongly that there needs to be a comprehensive look at the transportation components on behalf of the city, the county and the state, and not just the developer of the project,” he said. “That seems like a logical step with all the growth we’re seeing.”

The developer’s traffic study found that the intersection of East Lakeshore Drive and Big Mountain Road would fail whether or not the project is built, but a new roundabout proposed by the developer for the intersection would improve the function of the intersection.

Big Mountain Road is a state highway, so the Montana Department of Transportation would have to approve what type of traffic device would be installed at the intersection. The city says MDT would have to sign off on the roundabout before building permits could be issued for the project if it’s approved.

The traffic study also found that the traffic generated from the development could be accommodated on existing roads.

About 10 acres of open space is planned throughout the project along with developed recreation areas and a trail running 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, the developer has set aside a location for a SNOW bus stop.

Gross density of the entire site is proposed at 9.72 dwelling units per acre. By the right, the site could be developed with 374 units or by using a PUD offering 10% affordable housing the developer could construct 561 units.

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The intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive.