Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Planning board recommends higher density zoning on property near Park Knoll

Whitefish Pilot | March 22, 2023 1:00 AM

A public hearing was held at last week’s Whitefish Planning Board meeting regarding a zone change on about 11 acres of land owned by Carter Unger of Honor Bound LLC.

The applicant owns a total of about 50 acres of property in two parcels, both located west of Highway 93 South and south of the Park Knoll neighborhood. Unger is asking for a zone change on one portion of the property, around 11 acres, from WCR (country residential) with special conditions to WER (suburban residential) with special conditions.

The existing zoning, WCR, has a 2.5-acre minimum lot size. The proposed zoning, WER, has a 20,000 square feet minimum lot area or approximately half an acre. The requested zoning would match the adjacent zoning to the north and east of the property.

The special conditions are an additional five-foot setback off Park Knoll Lane to what is required and a promise from Unger in the zoning to develop only single-family homes adjacent to Park Knoll Lane west of the future Baker Avenue intersection. The city eventually plans to extend Baker Avenue to the south.

The remaining 20 acres of the 31-acre parcel will stay WCR, with a 2.5-acre minimum lot size. His remaining 10-acre parcel is zoned WR-2 and will remain as such. The applicant said he envisions a horseshoe shape of the larger lots surrounding the half-acre lots, with the highest densities in the WR-2 area.

“While we are only speaking of 11.2 acres, I do want to give the full context. If this is approved I will be left with a 50-acre assemblage, 20 acres of which is 2.5-acre minimums, 20 of which would be… half acres and then I would have 10 acres of smaller WR-2,” Unger said. “I believe this is a good mix.”

The property in question is almost totally covered by a seasonal freshwater emergent wetland which raised concerns at the meeting.

According to the staff report, the applicant stated that future development would be done through a planned unit development process and all required buffers from the seasonal wetland would be maintained.

Planning board member Scott Freudenberger asked the applicant what was the benefit of having the zoning density increased on the acres since they are mostly made up of the wetlands. He said the high groundwater may limit the applicant’s ability to build with more density.

Carter responded that he’s establishing the base zoning overall, so he will have a clearer picture of the number of lots he has to arrange with the ultimate hope of being able to create an open wildlife corridor and pedestrian hiking area through the wetlands.

“My goal is to come up with a creative plan with how to use this total base density across the entire site,” he added.

Whitefish City Planner Dave Taylor explained to the Pilot through an email that this zone change means that Unger could spread units that would have gone in that 11-acre portion to other places on his property. While most of the 11 acres portion will likely be in a wetland buffer, the applicant could develop with higher density elsewhere, perhaps to the east, near the proposed Baker Avenue extension.

Lindsey Hromadka, representative of the South Whitefish Neighborhood Association also had concerns about the wetlands.

“We would not be commenting tonight in opposition to this if it wasn't for the wetlands,” Hromadka said. “Why are we increasing the density on this area, where the wetlands primarily are? It doesn’t make sense.”

Planning board member Toby Scott moved to recommend the zone change and eventually the board voted 5-1 in favor of the motion, with planning board member Whitney Beckham voting in opposition.

“I think allowing an increased density, because it’s not not something that is necessary, it may make it easier to figure out, but I don't think that’s necessarily on us, as a planning board, to allow a greater density to make it easier to move parcels around,” Beckham said.

Concerns about the wetlands were addressed by planning board chairman Steve Qunell. He also said housing is Whitefish’s number one priority.

“This could be zoned WR-4 and you’re not going to be able to build in the wetland anyway,” Qunell began. “No matter what the density is, you’re not going to be able to build there. We are sensitive to water quality and to the wetlands.

“There’s a lot of angst over change, especially in that area. We have to, as a community, come together and understand when we have a big picture to provide more housing and a mix of housing, we have to find a way to get it done.”

The issue is scheduled to be heard by the Whitefish City Council on April 17.

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