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Planning board recommends multi-family, deed-restricted housing proposal

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

The public showed up for last week’s Whitefish Planning Board meeting to comment about a proposed multi-family development north of the viaduct. The board voted unanimously to recommend approval of the project, known as the Whitefish Corridor Community.

The developer, Ruis Texco, LLC, is requesting a planned unit development (PUD) to build 146 rental apartments in seven buildings on about 6.5 acres between Texas Avenue and Colorado Avenue, north of Edgewood Place.

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.

There will be a mix of one and two-bedroom apartments and 44 of them, or 30%, will be deed restricted to serve residents who earn 60%-80% area median income (AMI).

“The median listed rent in Whitefish right now is $3,000 a month,” Planning Board Chairman Steve Qunell said. “By 2030, we need 588 below-market-rate apartments in this town. This is… about 8% of that.”

To give some perspective, Qunell added that rent for someone qualifying at 60% of AMI would be limited to $1,015 a month.

Lauri Moffet-Fehlberg with Dahlin Group Architecture spoke on behalf of the applicant and pointed out aspects of the plan, including over 20% open space, areas reserved for plowed snow and construction that utilizes a mix of colors and building materials.

Seventeen citizens made public comments and nearly all of them said they support affordable housing but they have concerns, the most popular of which were traffic congestion, surface water and light from cars pulling into the parking area.

“My biggest concern is that there's no buffer between the backyard of that house and the parking lot,” said Doug Rhodes, whose family owns a house on Waverly Place. “We’re concerned about traffic… there’s a high water table there. I think it’s good that they're going to provide… housing. That’s very good and I support that.”

Cameron Blake represented Flathead Families for Responsible Growth and said the organization is supporting this project as proposed.

“With 57% of our workforce currently living outside of Whitefish, building housing for our community that is walkable, bikeable, bussable is really important,” said Whitefish resident, Mallory Phillips. “Housing isn’t just about the roofs and walls… it's about building a strong and inclusive community.”

The board called upon staff and addressed the most pressing concerns voiced by the public.

Whitefish Public Works Director Craig Workman said the city’s engineering standards will require that the water coming off the site post-development matches the amount that was there prior to the development.

As for the traffic situation, Workman said the city is working with BNSF on a grant for a railroad crossing elimination study. He added that the city is also working with the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) on a variety of projects on Wisconsin Avenue. The regional director of MDT will join the council at a work session in July.

The issue of buffering and fencing to limit glare from headlights and to protect privacy was discussed with Whitefish Senior Planner Wendy Compton-Ring. A friendly amendment regarding the buffering was crafted to ensure sufficient buffering will be provided.

The board voted unanimously to recommend approval of the project with the amended condition.

“As a community, we’ve said over and over again that we support affordable housing. With that comes some inconveniences as well,” Qunell said of increased traffic and other effects of development. “We all have to share in that burden as well and that’s what it means to live in a community.”

Since the applicant is volunteering to build affordable housing, they are entitled to Legacy Homes Program incentives. The developer has chosen additional height up to 40 feet which will allow them to build more interesting and varied rooflines.

Two other incentives are reduced parking and a density bonus, neither of which are being fully utilized. The parking would drop the requirement from 306 spaces to 256 spaces. The project will provide 280 parking spaces. With the density bonus, the developer would be allowed to build 167 units but he is proposing 146.

The application is asking for one zoning deviation that will allow for parking in the side yard setback. This means a change from a 15-foot to a 5-foot setback.

A traffic impact study was conducted for this project and suggested a re-timing of the traffic signal at the intersection of Edgewood Place and Wisconsin Avenue. Staff recommended a condition of approval that the developer and the Montana Department of Transportation work together on improving signal timing.

The plan includes several open areas, the three largest will have landscaping, trails and other amenities. In addition to providing attractive, high-quality streetscapes, the developer will install a crosswalk with improved ramps so there is safe access to the shared bike path on the west side of Colorado Avenue.

This project will be addressed at the Whitefish City Council meeting on June 19.

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