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Council approves reworked landscaping code; water main project to wrap up soon

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | May 24, 2023 1:00 AM

*Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct council vote.

Over the last several months, the City of Whitefish’s Landscaping Code was completely reworked by City Planner Alan Tiefenbach and the planning staff. Last week, the Whitefish City Council voted to approve the amendments.

Updating the code is listed as a 2022 City Council Goal and revisions were last made to the Landscaping and Tree Retention and Preservation Standards in 2008.

The changes were based on extensive research by the staff. They reviewed landscaping regulations in 18 cities in Montana, Colorado and the northwest, along with several others, before rewriting and reorganizing the code. They had meetings with Whitefish’s Public Works and Parks and Recreation departments before sending the draft to a dozen landscaping firms for comment.

“The code was completely rearranged to make it flow and read more logically,” Tiefenbach said. “The basic landscaping requirements were reorganized into tables at the front so they could be accessed more easily.”

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.

The reworked code’s landscaping requirements apply to everything except single-family, detached homes.

Tiefenbach said the old code’s minimum tree density requirements were difficult to implement so staff looked for a simpler approach. The new requirements identify certain trees as qualifying trees, based on size and other factors. Each qualifying tree that’s removed must be replaced with trees totaling at least two times the caliper of the trees lost.

Tiefenbach addressed Councilor Ben Davis’ concerns about whether the tree retention requirements would prohibit development.

“This is intended to let people develop and at the same time have to take into account the trees,” he said. “And be able to describe at the time of development why they have to cut the trees down.”

He said the city wants to have a dialogue with the applicant about the importance of trees in the city and work at finding solutions if trees need to be removed.

“We wanted to make sure that there was some flexibility,” he said. “When people come in to use this landscape code, what we’re asking them to do is to indicate on the landscape plan the trees that they’re going to preserve.”

Unlawful removal of a tree that was supposed to be retained will result in a municipal infraction.

“There's a very tenacious balance between trying to make it a regulation and having enough flexibility,” Tiefenbach said. “If you go too soft, then you can’t enforce it, if you go too hard, then nobody can do anything.”

A draft of the changes was brought to the council and to the planning board during work sessions in February. The planning board then recommended the changes in April.

Tiefenbach said that overall, both groups were supportive of the new regulations, and questions that arose from those meetings were addressed. Staff talked with the fire chief about fire mitigation and added clarification regarding acceptable root barriers.

Councilor Giuseppe Caltabiano asked about the urgency for approving the updated version of the code because he said the public was raising points he had not considered and the council could do more homework.

The council voted 4-1 to approve the amendments to the code with Councilor Giuseppe Caltabiano voting in opposition.

WHITEFISH PUBLIC Works Director Craig Workman gave a brief update on the Spokane Avenue Water Main Replacement Project. He said the city’s portion of the work, the replacement of the water main, is on schedule to be finished before the end of the month.

The Montana Department of Transportation will begin the resurfacing job on May 30. They plan on doing the work from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.

“The justification for doing the work at night, although it will be more of a nuisance to the residents who live directly adjacent to the work, it’ll take the work from two, two and a half weeks down to four or five days,” Workman said. “So we thought that it made sense.”

During the resurfacing, Spokane will continue to have one-lane, two-way traffic.

IN LIGHT of the recent silencing of Missoula’s Representative Zooey Zephyr at the Montana State Legislature, Councilor Rebecca Norton requested that City Attorney Angela Jacobs review the city’s non-discrimination ordinance as a reminder to those present and the public.

“It specifically includes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual individuals,” Norton said. “I wanted to make an effort to include people in our community and visitors in a formal way.”

Jacobs said Whitefish adopted its non-discrimination ordinance in 2016 when Montana law did not protect sexual orientation or gender identity as a protected class. The ordinance prohibits discrimination in employment, public accommodations and housing, and it prohibits retaliation.

“At the time it was important for us as a city to formally recognize that we are inclusive of everyone,” Jacobs said.

She added that the Montana Human Rights Bureau is now recognizing sexual orientation and gender identity as a protected class.

“Basically, I just wanted to remind our community… what we stand for,” Norton noted. “We are about diversity and inclusion and respect for everybody’s individuality.”

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