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Council Briefs: Bears already a problem; city budget, zoning change approved

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | June 29, 2022 1:00 AM

Bears in Whitefish

Since the start of May, there have already been nearly 100 bear and wild animal conflict calls from the Whitefish area reported to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Justine Vallieres, the Region 1 Wildlife Conflict Specialist for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, came to the Whitefish City Council meeting on June 20 to give an update on bear activity and thank the council for moving forward with bear-resistant trash containers.

In her work as a bear and mountain lion conflict specialist, Vallieres covers the area from Eureka to Whitefish, Columbia Falls, up to Marias Pass and the North Fork. She reported fielding nearly 200 calls about human conflicts with bears and mountain lions in her area since May 1. That’s just 50 days — an average of four incidents a day.

Vallieres acknowledged the recent pushback to bear-resistant containers in Whitefish and noted the fact that some people claimed there are no bear problems or minimal bear problems here. She mentioned she’s been putting in a lot of hours lately and bear conflicts in Whitefish are “very much a problem.”

“I had 99 conflict calls from Whitefish alone since May 1,” she said. “Black bears getting into garbage, mostly, and bird feeders. Black bears unafraid, habituated — people very concerned, demanding that I bring traps out. And I’ve actually had a couple people say they were charged by black bears.”

Whitefish is currently making the switch to animal-resistant garbage containers and the transition should be complete by the end of August.

Vallieres thanked the council for going forward with the bear-resistant containers and said FWP is excited about the decision.

“We’re looking forward to them being on the ground,” Vallieres said about the new containers. “Despite the cans being rolled out, we’re still going to have conflicts. There's still going to be the calls. There's still going to be bears. But I’m really hoping this is going to mitigate these conflicts and it should.”

To see a video of bear-resistant garbage containers at work in Whitefish, go to: https://www.facebook.com/FlatheadBearAware/

Hwy 93 Split zoning approved

Council passed an ordinance rezoning approximately 13 acres of land east of Highway 93 that was newly annexed into city limits.

The applicant, Tracy Poole of True North Partners, requested a zoning amendment from Flathead County zoning to secondary business to the west and two-family residential to the east.

“Their interest is to do townhouse development similar to what’s been happening in that neighborhood. To the south it's all eight-plexes and six-plexes and then to the north there are also townhouses,” Whitefish Senior Planner Wendy Compton-Ring explained. “Everyone has done a PUD overlay to get higher density and be able to do townhouses.”

Properties around the parcel were zoned single-family residential with a planned unit development overlay so they could develop townhouses. True North asked for two-family residential zoning because they, too, intend to build two-unit townhouses without need for a planned unit development overlay, which would be another zone change.

“We are proposing townhomes in this area. Rather than go through the PUD process, we were looking at what was more straightforward to get what we’re wanting,” Dominic Goble from the Morrison-Maierle engineering firm who represents True North Partners said. “So we chose WR-2… where sub-lots and townhomes are permitted use.”

Goble added that they were proposing 54 townhomes.

The Whitefish Planning Board met and considered the request on May 19. There were no comments from the public at that time and just one letter at the time of the council meeting, concerned with neighborhood character. The planning board and the city staff recommended that the council adopt the ordinance.

FY23 preliminary budget approved

City Manager Dana Smith presented a brief summary of the proposed FY23 budget and the council approved it with a unanimous vote.

“Our budget proposes an overall reduction in mills of 8.413 mills which is about a 5.36% decrease in property tax revenue,” Smith said. “We’re able to do this because resort tax this year, for FY23, will result in an additional 1.16 million going back to property tax payers. That’s due to the increased collections that we had during FY22.”

She said these numbers were estimates based on expected collections through June of this year. So they are subject to change but are based on reasonable estimates.

“We haven’t raised our maintenance assessments for two years. With COVID, we kept all rates, utility rates and assessments flat and actually provided decreases in millage, as well,” said Smith. “So we only have the street maintenance assessment and the parks and greenway maintenance assessments increasing 4%.”

Included in the city’s proposed budget are positions in police, fire, parks and recreation and human resources, as well as a building inspector and someone in code enforcement.

“We’re all facing challenges with supply and demand and inflationary pressures,” Smith concluded.

Council approved the preliminary budget unanimously. See the Pilot article from June 22 for a detailed budget breakdown.

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