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Council work session discusses updates to landscape, tree regulations

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | March 15, 2023 1:00 AM

The Whitefish City Planning Staff has been cleaning up and updating the city’s Landscaping and Tree Retention and Preservation Standards. City Planner Alan Tiefenbach presented a working draft to the council at a work session last week.

The last time the code was updated was in 2008, so Tiefenbach and the planning staff had lots of reorganizing and reworking to do.

The biggest change was that the entire code was rearranged to make it flow and read more logically. The new code presents basic landscaping requirements in a table at the front of the document to make them more easily accessible.

The working draft also provides details about what is required for a landscape plan. Tiefenbach said the present code gives “no details about what you need to do to submit a landscape plan.”

The reworked code’s landscaping requirements apply to everything except single-family, detached homes. The old code exempts duplexes and triplexes as well.

Some of the new landscaping requirements that were not part of the existing code include building perimeters, residential buffers, street frontages and internal parking lot islands.

Staff changed a seemingly arbitrary calculation regarding how much landscaping is required at a site, basing it now on performance standards, like the lengths of frontages and the sizes of parking lots.

Additionally, all the landscaping requirements that were found in other sections and chapters of the code were consolidated in the new code. Other elements of the rewritten code include desired percentages of native and drought-tolerant species.

Tiefenbach said the existing tree preservation code has minimum tree density requirements with difficult tables, numbers and calculations.

The new draft states that evergreen trees with a diameter of 12 inches or more and deciduous trees with diameters of six inches or more, both measured four feet from the ground, and other trees determined as significant by the zoning administrator are defined as qualifying trees.

He said this simpler approach was derived from reviewing the tree preservation requirements from more than 20 municipalities in the Pacific Northwest and Rocky Mountain West.

Each qualifying tree removed must be replaced with trees totaling at least two times the diameter inches that were lost. There is an option of charging a fee for removal of a qualifying tree.

“If you remove a… qualifying tree that was supposed to be preserved, and you cut it down, it can either be treated as a civil offense or you will have to pay a cost of one and a half times the value of that tree or you’d have to replace that tree,” Tiefenbach said at the work session.

During public comment, Rhonda Fitzgerald said supplying examples of the prices and penalties for removing qualified trees would be helpful.

There are situations in which a developer could have “relief” from this requirement for heavily forested lots and the Whitefish Planning Board believed there should also be exemptions for trees removed for the purpose of fire mitigation.

Before beginning the code update, staff reviewed the landscaping regulations for seven Montana municipalities, six cities in the northwest, five city and county governments in Colorado and several other cities with robust landscaping regulations.

They also reviewed the existing regulations, reconstructed and rewrote them and had five internal meetings with other departments including Parks and Recreation and Public Works.

The working draft was sent to 12 landscaping firms familiar with Montana and Tiefenbach said, “All of the landscape architects that I got responses (from) were all very positive.”

With direction from the council, staff will prepare a formal draft and present it in April or May.