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Downtown affordable housing development plans get Planning Board approval

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | November 23, 2022 1:00 AM

What used to be known as the Snow Lot is now called the Depot Park Townhomes and the concept for the affordable housing project took a step closer to reality this week.

The Whitefish Planning Board voted to recommend approval of the preliminary plat and the planned unit development (PUD) overlay to the City Council whose hearing on the item is scheduled for Dec. 5.

The location was known as the snow lot because it had previously been used by the city to store plowed snow in the winter. It was also used to provide leaf pick-up and it served as the site of the former central recycling center. The land was donated to the Whitefish Housing Authority in June 2020, specifically to be developed into affordable housing.

Before that, the land was described in the Downtown Master Plan as a parking lot, but in 2017, the city considered building affordable housing on the site. In January 2018, the City Council amended the Master Plan to allow for housing to be built.

“This has been a long time in the making,” said Katie Williams, Whitefish Housing Authority board member who presented at the meeting. “It has culminated from a lot of discussions at the city level and then with the public participation level including a design (meeting) in 2018, (when) we took the neighborhood’s ideas, fears, questions and thoughts into consideration in terms of how we’re designing this.”

The Whitefish Housing Authority is the applicant for the project, an 11-lot subdivision with 22 townhouse units. The 11 buildings are split-level townhomes, five that front Railway Street and six that are located along the northern property line.

The 1.64 acre property lies to the north of Railway Street, east of Columbia Avenue and south of the railroad tracks. It is zoned for high-density, multi-family housing, or WR-4.

Residents will enter and exit the proposed development via Columbia Avenue. According to Senior Planner Wendy Compton-Ring, the applicant along with the city tried to work with BNSF to extend Somers Avenue to give the development another egress, but were unable to come to an agreement, so a gated, emergency access that connects to Railway Street is planned.

The applicant has requested two subdivision variances and several zoning deviations as part of the project, including in part, the minimum lot size, setbacks and parking. Ordinarily they would need to have 44 spaces but they are providing 32.

In exchange for the zoning deviations, the applicant is providing affordable housing which is deemed a community benefit. The two-bedroom townhouses will be 100% deed-restricted ownership units for people earning 80-150% area median income (AMI).

Compton-Ring clarified what deed restriction means by saying the owner cannot sublet or rent the property.

“They have to live there, it’s their primary residence,” she said. “They have to be living in the home for 10 or 11 months of the year… and there’s a limitation on the sale price.”

According to the plans, there are three areas of open space. One is nearly 2,000 square feet at the northwest corner, another at the eastern edge of over 7,000 square feet and one between buildings on the south side of the development.

During public comment, Whitefish resident Rhonda Fitzgerald said she served on the original work group for the snow lot and before that for the original Downtown Master Plan in 2005. She said this block was identified, at that time, as high-density residential and the first plan was apartment buildings but a robust public process caused the plan to change to townhomes that look like single-family homes.

Nancy Kireilis lives on Railway Street and said the street is narrow and that parking, especially in the winter, is difficult and this project will only make it worse. She added that some trains have very bright lights and another neighbor commented about noise from the trains.

“Unless you live there, you don’t really know what that lot is like,” Kireilis said during her public comment.

She added that the former recycling center was actually a dump. Another neighbor said he could see the entire Whitefish mountain range from his living room and feels this project is a terrible idea and that he would prefer to have the dump back.

Steve Qunell served as Planning Board Chairman in the absence of John Ellis and said these affordable housing units have been discussed since 2018.

“The best place we can put housing is downtown where people can walk. This idea we want… housing close to town, is embedded in pretty much every plan that we have, from our Climate Action Plan to our Transportation Plan to our Growth Plan,” said Qunell. “This is a unique opportunity for our city to take a piece of land that we own and build affordable housing downtown.”

Planning Board Member Whitney Beckham considered the comments regarding lost views.

“The problem with having a view when you don’t own the open space is it’s always subject to change,” said Beckham. “It could have been very tall, large apartment buildings and a lot of people have worked for years to get it to this reflection of the neighborhood.”

An amendment for a gate on Railway Street for the emergency access, as well as the motion to recommend passed unanimously. Whitefish City Council will discuss the matter on Dec. 5.

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