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Time to take more time

by By Mayre Flowers
| November 2, 2022 1:00 AM

Planning for the future takes time, good information, and often the ability to think outside of the box of “this is the way it has always been done” or “there are no other solutions.” On Nov. 7 at the Whitefish City Council meeting, there will be a public hearing on the Whitefish Planning Office’s renewed proposal for highway commercial, with possible residential behind, at the intersection of Highway 93 and Montana 40 and south along Highway 93. It’s time to ask the council to take more time, to make a decision that is really right for Whitefish.

In early spring of 2022, the council tabled a similar zoning request from the planning office indefinitely, not yet feeling that a good solution for zoning this corridor had been found. To the council’s credit, they had already requested that numerous uses the planning office had recommended be removed from the zoning proposal including wholesale and warehousing, as well as several conditionally permitted uses like bars and lounges, hotels, amusement parks, storage units, and automobile boat and RV sales, and others. The council did add residential uses knowing that housing is what the city really needs, but this plan was rightfully tabled for more thought.

The planning office has repeatedly told the council that high-density housing is not an appropriate use in this Highway corridor because it is two miles from the city center, where they say it is more appropriate to locate such housing. The reality is that Whitefish has approved numerous residential developments near the intersection of Highway 93 and 40 including Great Northern Estates, The Lakes, Monterra, Alta Vista, and Emerald Heights. The City of Kalispell has demonstrated with Silverbrook Estates, that by requiring raised landscaped berms and by setting much deeper highway setbacks it is possible to build an attractive neighborhood development along Highway 93.

The reality is that city residents have overwhelmingly opposed more strip commercial development down Highway 93. But a few developers who have bought up property in the corridor keep pushing the planning office to get more commercial zoning approved. While it is true the city has little say over this property outside the city limits unless the owners request annexation; it is also true that when they do, the city has the clear right to define what types of uses the city needs and wants, and to reject annexation requests that don’t meet the needs or vision of the city and its residents.

The reality is that the zoning being proposed for adoption at the Nov. 7 public hearing fails to first define the transportation infrastructure that must be built — what right of way is needed, what limits to highway access are needed, and who will pay for these improvements upon annexation. Identifying the transportation infrastructure that must be built first so congestion doesn’t become an even greater nightmare is a must. The reality is that out-of-the-box thinking is needed to envision for example a base layer of zoning for housing by right but a very tough overlay criteria for adding any commercial that doesn’t clearly meet an identified city need — not the needs of developers wanting to make huge profits at the expense of city taxpayers and workers, who primarily just need housing they can afford in quality neighborhoods. Time for another time-out.

Mayre Flowers, Citizens for a Better Flathead Board Co-chair

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