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Council needs a closer look at City’s annexation policy before approving WB-T zoning

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | November 30, 2022 1:00 AM

The Whitefish City Council continued last week to address an ordinance that would establish a new transitional zoning district (WB-T) affecting properties looking to annex into the city along Highway 93 South near Montana 40. At its regular meeting, the council decided to postpone the matter until Feb. 6, after they’ve had a chance to look into some sticking points, including the city’s annexation policy.

Once again, the council contended with the plan which is an implementation item of the Highway 93 South Corridor Plan and was postponed at the Nov. 7 meeting after a public hearing. Last week, the issue was discussed again by council, but the public hearing was closed.

Whitefish City Planner Dave Taylor gave a brief summary of the WB-T district and its purpose.

“The last thing that we wanted south of 40 was high traffic and congestion uses and so we came up with the transitional zone that… removed the high traffic types of uses out of that zoning district,” he said. “It did keep professional offices in there, light industrial and housing by right and that’s really the only uses that are permitted. There are a few conditional uses that are added in there, too.”

He said the plan was for the zoning district to prevent sprawl and limit traffic while allowing housing. He reiterated that currently the land is under county zoning and they have few standards for development.

“This district requires frontage and backage roads for any development out there, it requires consolidation of highway access points,” Taylor said. “Currently there’s no requirement for those things under the county and our B-2 doesn’t have any of those requirements, our B-2 is our equivalent (city) zoning.”

The plan also has a landscaping setback of 50 feet off the highway and a 20-foot setback requirement to the back or side when adjacent to residential property. Additionally, the zoning has a building size maximum which limits the building of strip malls.

In turn, the councilors had questions of Taylor and of Whitefish Public Works Director Craig Workman. Their concerns were numerous and varied and the discourse boiled down to a need to address the annexation policy.

Frontage roads, highway access points and high-density housing units were all sources of “heartburn” as the council shared their thoughts. As the discussion boiled down, the annexation policy took center stage.

Councilor Andy Feury said the city was hamstrung by the state with regard to being able to have “conditioned annexation” whereby the city could provide sewer and water to an annexing property in return for something the city wants.

Taylor said previous discussions about the annexation policy included whether the annexation and the zoning determination should happen at the same time so that the council would have some assurance about what the developer had in mind.

Councilor Steve Qunell’s amendment to change all the permitted uses in the plan to conditional uses, thereby giving the council more control over developments, passed.

Norton summarized the discussion and what needs to be done in order to move forward with the zoning change.

“Just to clarify… what it sounds like is Andy (Feury) would like more clarification on when the annexation policy will be updated, so we need a work session on that,” Norton said. “We might need to add language about buffering to preserve the neighborhoods better.”

A third topic is to consider making some of the uses permitted, like daycares, home occupations and public buildings.

Taylor said council could have a work session after the first of the year and that the annexation policy does not need to go through the planning board prior to being heard by the council.

Council voted 5-1, with Councilor Giuseppe Caltabiano in opposition, to postpone deliberations on the WB-T zoning district until their Feb. 6 regular meeting.

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