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Council looks at city’s annexation policy, could revise to streamline process

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | January 25, 2023 1:00 AM

Last fall, the Whitefish City Council realized it needed a closer look at the city’s annexation policy before it would be able to approve the new transitional zoning district, WB-T, for the area along Highway 93 south of Montana 40. At a work session last week, council discussed a more streamlined method.

City staff sought direction from council to bring an amended annexation policy to a regular meeting for a vote. Council agreed staff should present the policy to council at a regular meeting without further work sessions.

According to the City of Whitefish, land is annexed so that city services, such as municipal water, sewer and road maintenance can be made available to the property. Annexation results in taxpayers who use city services equitably sharing the cost of such services and it allows the landowner to vote in municipal elections. Annexations can be initiated by property owners or by the city.

In the work session last week, Whitefish City Planner Dave Taylor presented to council, once again, a streamlined annexation process whereby the annexation and the zoning occur simultaneously.

“In the past, city council approves the annexation and then staff initiates a zone change which takes three or four months to go through the process — go to the planning board and the council,” said Taylor. “That leaves a little bit of a lag time between when the property comes into city limits and when the zoning actually becomes Whitefish zoning.”

The new process that the council first discussed last June and again in the recent work session, is based on the same process that Missoula uses regularly. Both the annexation and the new city zoning go into effect immediately upon adoption of one resolution by city council, without a planning board hearing, but as a two-step expedited process due to it being a necessary annexation rezone.

The staff report describes the truncated process step by step. First, the city council passes a resolution of intent to annex and apply city zoning, then publishes a public notice that announces the resolution hearing.

At the hearing, staff gives a recommendation, the public is invited to speak, and the pros and cons of the annexation and rezone request are considered by councilors. The council accepts or rejects the annexation and zoning resolution by vote. If the vote is successful, the annexation and zone change would both go into effect immediately.

At the work session, Mayre Flowers of Citizens for a Better Flathead said she believed annexations should continue to go through the Whitefish Planning Board and later, Councilor Ben Davis said he thought that step was necessary, too. Staff was told to keep this in mind when preparing the policy for council.

DURING MEETINGS in November, Taylor gave a brief summary of the proposed WB-T zoning 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.

The Council struggled and was unable to approve any version of the WB-T. At that time, their concerns were numerous and varied and the discourse boiled down to a need to address the annexation policy.

In a work session last June, staff presented an expedited process based on the method that the City of Missoula uses. It allows for annexation and the zoning change to go into effect at the same time with just one hearing at the city council.

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.

Taylor also introduced informational materials to better communicate the policies and process to the public using plain language in the form of a frequently asked questions (FAQ) document.

Council ran out of time during the work session but revisited the issue in the regular meeting. After a few more comments, they agreed to have the revised policy brought to council. No date has been set for this item.

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