Sunday, April 14, 2024

Council looks at trail construction hurdles

Whitefish Pilot | April 3, 2024 12:00 AM

No one from the public was in attendance at last week’s Whitefish City Council meeting but that didn’t shorten the proceedings. Construction of a bike/pedestrian river trail connection has been on the city’s to-do list for years and the council addressed the next step in the process.

The section of trail being discussed is one that would connect the river trail from the north edge of the underpass to the BNSF Railway loop trail. Part of the trail goes past the Riverbend Condos and part, through Casey Malmquist’s Miles Whitefish Investment, LLC (MWI) property.

Over two years ago, MWI was granted an administrative conditional use permit to develop the property just to the north of the Riverbend Condos property. One of the conditions of approval was that the bike/pedestrian trail be installed to meet city standards.

Early in 2022, MWI applied to the Flathead Conservation District for a 310 permit to construct the trail and after tabling application several times, the FCD eventually refused to issue the permit, making MWI unable to fulfill the conditions of its conditional use permit.

Over a year later, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks said it believed the two sections of the trail connector, the part going by the Riverbend Condo property and the section going through MWI’s property, were one project and that it might be a better idea for the city to apply for a 124 permit and construct the entire connector trail as a single project.

In January of this year, the council directed staff to go ahead with an application to FWP for the 124 permit and to negotiate with MWI to reimburse the city for the cost of constructing the trail on its property.

Whitefish Attorney Angela Jacobs reported that the city and MWI had negotiated an agreement whereby the city would apply for the needed permit and after the permit is granted, MWI would reimburse the city a little over $204,000, the amount of the 2-year old bid.

The council discussed timing and amount of the reimbursement, the likelihood of having the permit granted and other considerations before sending Jacobs back to negotiate further.

Councilors also questioned the amount and quality of the 2-year-old bid. Whitefish Public Works Director Craig Workman assured them it was a detailed, engineered site plan.

“The number seems low to me as well, but I can tell you it was a valid bid from Watson,” Workman said before speaking about the developer’s situation. “He’s really stuck between a rock and a hard place because he has a condition of approval from that city that requires him to build the path, but he can’t get the permit to build it so he’s … looking for a means to fulfill the condition of his CUP and start selling these units.” 

Rather than wait for FWP to grant the permit, Councilor Frank Sweeney suggested the city get the funds from the developer now.

“You were going to have to spend this money to get your condition of approval anyway … pay us the money. We’ll probably put it in trust… to be held for this project only,” Sweeney said. “I appreciate his position … but in theory, this $205,000 is spent. So I think those funds actually need to be paid to the city now as a condition of getting his CO.”

Councilor Ben Davis said the planning for this trail connector has taken decades and could, possibly, take decades more.

“Wouldn’t we want to have an agreement here that puts this issue to bed with the developer?” Davis said. “He may be long gone by the time this rolls around, so would we want to set up something where we’re taking a cash in lieu and take on the project going forward.”

Davis pointed out there are risks on both sides and he was interested in putting some finality to the issue. At the end of over 40 minutes of discussion, he asked Jacobs if she would like to discuss the issue with the developer and bring the item back to council.

“I’d like the opportunity to work with Casey’s council a little bit more to see what ideas they might have,” Jacobs said. “That would be my recommendation.”

The construction of the trail faces additional complications imposed by the Riverbend Condos Association. Despite the fact that the city was granted a trail easement along the river in 1983. According to the staff report, over the years the city and the Riverbend Condos Association have been unable to agree on the exact location of the trail easement.

THE COUNCIL voted unanimously to approve a land use license with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation for the Spencer Mountain Trail.

The Spencer Mountain area is owned by the state and managed by the DNRC. The trails are maintained by Whitefish Legacy Partners and Flathead Area Mountain Bikers. For the last ten years, the city and Whitefish Legacy Partners have had a special recreational use license with the DNRC.

Approximately 9 miles of the Whitefish Trail and 7 miles of Free Ride Trails were covered under the special use license which expired this year. The parties have negotiated a renewal of the license, but this time, for a more appropriate, ten-year land use license. 

“The land use license is very similar to what it was before,” Jacobs began. “Whitefish Legacy Partners had traditionally paid for the conservation license fees for users. This time around we are going to require people to have a conservation license from FWP.” 

Jacobs said the licenses are available online.

MAYOR JOHN Muhlfeld volunteered to serve on the Safe Streets for All plan task force committee as the representative from the council. His request was unanimously approved.

Workman said members are still being solicited. His goal is to finalize the committee by early April and have the first meeting by the middle of April.

Whitefish received federal funding to complete a Safe Streets for All action plan to improve roadway safety while focusing on all roadway users.

THE CITY recently entered into a new Memorandum of Understanding with FWP that is similar to previous versions and defines the parties responsibilities regarding maintenance and management of the Beaver Lakes fishing access site.

The council unanimously approved the Memorandum of Understanding which requires FWP provide routine maintenance at the fishing access site, maintaining the soon-to-be-installed vault toilet, the parking area and boat ramp.

Originally, FWP paid the city $3,500 a year to lease approximately two acres of land for the fishing access site. The city gave that money to Whitefish Legacy Partners. This year, FWP informed the city they could no longer afford it.

“But we felt like it was so important to preserve public access to that spot so we have met with FWP … several times and have agreed to … this maintenance agreement,” Jacobs said.