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Multi-family development gets green light in Whitefish

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | June 28, 2023 2:00 AM

A large development that would provide 146 rental apartments, including some deed-restricted as affordable, was recently approved by the Whitefish City Council with a unanimous vote.

The proposed project known as the Whitefish Corridor Community is located between Texas Avenue and Colorado Avenue north of Edgewood Place. The project includes 146 units with both one- and two-bedroom styles that would occupy seven buildings on about 6.5 acres.

Thirty percent of the apartments, 44 units, are deed restricted for permanent affordability as the developer chose to participate in Whitefish’s voluntary Legacy Homes Program that encourages the building of affordable housing. The deed-restricted units consist of a mix of 12 one-bedroom and 32 two-bedroom units to serve residents who earn 60%-80% area median income (AMI).

The project is proposed by Ruis Texco LLC which is owned by Columbia Falls developer Mick Ruis. Ruis has taken on several projects in Columbia Falls, including apartments, hotels, commercial buildings and restaurants, but this would be his first in Whitefish. He also is working on an apartment complex project in Kalispell.

THE CITY received 26 letters about the Whitefish Corridor Community. Fifteen were in support of the project, while 11 voiced several concerns about the impact on the existing neighborhood.

Michelle Hutcherson wrote, “Please approve this community because it will provide a meaningful number of affordable options. We can’t survive, literally, without community members from all income levels.”

Some were opposed for several reasons, many of which were summed up in Marc Neidig’s letter.

Neidig wrote, “The sheer scope and scale of this development will forever harm the character, not only of the neighborhood, but the entire area, while also creating issues with traffic and congestion levels, safety, privacy, and quality of life for neighboring properties.”

At the council meeting, the majority of the nine members of the community who made public comments were in support of the project and a couple voiced concerns about the lack of sufficient infrastructure, traffic and the need for buffering.

Shelter WF’s co-founder and treasurer Mallory Phillips spoke in support of the project and linked that support to her belief that people should have choices about whether or not to live in Whitefish.

“Right now it is only those that are wealthy or privileged or long-time locals like me, that have those choices,” she said.

Whitefish resident Amy Boring alluded to conversations she’s had with a friend and with the project’s manager. She claimed the development is unsafe because it “barely passed the traffic impact report.” And added that the owner, Ruis, pressured someone to sell their home, and that “C-Falls hands out permits like candy.”

At the end of public comment, Ruis spoke in an effort to set the record straight. He said he asked that person once if he was interested in selling his house but there was no pressure.

Ruis described himself as a scaffold builder by trade and said his family has invested $35 million in Columbia Falls. He defended the improvements his company has made in Columbia Falls which was once a lot less vibrant than it is now.

“There is no way that Columbia Falls has ever just rubber-stamped our stuff,” said Ruis. “I think they’re very appreciative. I wanted to invest in my community and that’s what we did.”

“I’m willing to work with people and more than fair so whatever you guys decide, it’s OK on my end,” Ruis told the council. “I’m only trying to do something that’s better for the whole community.”

COUNCIL’S DISCUSSION was brief but included adding a condition that no basements are to be built, with concerns about the water table. Though basements are not in the plans, Councilor Rebecca Norton wished to assure it stay that way if the development changed hands.

Councilor Giuseppe Caltabiano suggested looking at the big picture, rather than focusing solely on the deed-restricted units.

“Thank you to the regulations and to the willingness of the developer to deed 44 units," he said, recognizing that 44 is more than what was needed to garner the incentives. “At the same time, 146 units, if built the way they look, will attract and will fair market compete within the marketplace.”

“In my mind, this is the type of growth that can happen and needs to happen and hopefully will happen in our little town,” he added.

Although councilors were supportive of the project, Norton and Councilor Frank Sweeney both talked about considering the benefit of the project versus the detriment it could cause to the established neighborhood.

“I believe this is a project that will serve this community and I am supportive of it 100%, but let's not forget that it does some damage and it does some injury to some of our neighbors,” Sweeney recognized.

Norton added, “It’s always hard to make changes in established neighborhoods, and we always weigh if it's going to be harmful to people or if we’re going to be getting enough community benefit… but I do think it's wonderful that we’re going to be getting affordable housing.”

AFFORDABLE HOUSING was discussed by the public and councilors as a major benefit of this project. The 44 deed-restricted units will serve residents who earn 60%-80% area median income (AMI).

AMI is determined annually and for 2022, according to a previous Whitefish Pilot report, the AMI in Flathead County for a two-person household was $80,444. The city says the actual rents will be determined at the time of building and completion of the units.

Ruis chose to voluntarily participate in the Whitefish Legacy Homes Program, which is an initiative to create permanently affordable homes in new developments in Whitefish.

The city’s inclusionary zoning program previously required new multi-family developments to set aside 20% of the units or lots for long-term affordability. This program was killed by a bill signed by Gov. Greg Gianforte in 2021.

The Legacy Homes Program now offers incentives for developers who volunteer to provide affordable housing by making at least 20% of their projects affordable. In this development by Ruis, 30% of the units will be deed restricted.

“We believe they’ve demonstrated clear community benefit by deviating from the adopted standard,” said Whitefish Senior Planner Wendy Compton-Ring.

The incentives to be used are additional building height of up to 40 feet, reduced parking that would require 256 spaces and a density bonus that would allow for 167 units. The development is not taking full advantage of the incentives and will provide 280 parking spaces and 146 units.

THE SITE will be accessed by one driveway off Colorado Avenue and two off Texas Avenue. The buildings toward the edges of the property are two-story structures, while three-story buildings are located closer to the center of the property and contain 24 units each.

One building includes community space for the residents, a maintenance shop and a bike storage area. There are several open areas around the development, the largest three are designed with landscaping and trails.

Lauri Moffet-Fehlberg, Senior Vice President of Dahlin Group Architecture, the architecture firm for the project, presented images of the layout as well as the finished buildings with the chosen materials. She spoke of the desire the developer has to work with the community and create the least amount of impact possible on the existing neighborhood.

“There will be sidewalks and connectivity all the way through and across the site,” she explained.

A traffic impact study was completed for the project and it suggested re-timing the traffic signal at the intersection of Edgewood Place and Wisconsin Avenue. The city is requesting the developer work with the Montana Department of Transportation on the signal.

At the Whitefish Planning Board meeting on May 18, the board considered the request and conducted a public hearing in which residents expressed their support as well as their concerns about water, traffic and glare from headlights into nearby yards.

The planning board added a condition requiring buffering around the parking lot to prevent headlights from trespassing onto adjacent properties and to provide privacy. The board voted unanimously to recommend the project to the council.

In closing, prior to council’s vote, Mayor John Muhlfeld said he often enjoys visiting the downtown area of Columbia Falls and thanked Ruis for bringing this housing project to Whitefish.

“You’ve done wonders over there, so I just wanted to say we certainly appreciate you taking an interest in Whitefish,” Muhlfeld said.

The developer created a website for the project in order to keep the community abreast of the development. The site includes updates and contact information. Visit www.whitefishcorridorcommunity.com for more information.

photo

The rendering shows the Whitefish Community Corridor project viewed from Colorado Avenue looking east into the complex. (Rendering provided)