Wednesday, April 17, 2024

River Lakes townhome project draws scrutiny from neighbors

Whitefish Pilot | February 21, 2024 12:00 AM

At the second meeting of Whitefish's newly-formed Community Development Board last week, members voted to recommend a conditional-use permit and preliminary plat for a nine-lot subdivision.

The owner of the 2.5-acre property located at 2041 River Lakes Parkway is Rick Barnes and the project is  known as Under the Crescent Moon. The development consists of three two-unit townhouses and one three-unit townhouse.

One of the lots is accessed by River Lakes Parkway and the remaining lots front River Lakes Drive. The project does not require a traffic impact study because it will generate an estimated 90 daily trips, which is short of the 200 daily trips needed to trigger a study.

The property is near a pond that serves as a stormwater facility for a nearby neighborhood. The Water Quality Protection regulations classify the fringe around the pond as exempt from the wetland requirements but does place a 15-foot setback around the pond.

“The applicant is working with the Army Corps of Engineers,” said Whitefish Senior Planner Wendy Compton-Ring. “They are proposing to fill a small portion of the wetland and then they’re providing a two-to-one replacement ratio for that.”

Additionally, the city staff is recommending a permanent delineation, like fencing or landscaping, be installed along the length of the wetland where it meets the property.

Due to high groundwater in the area, the structures will be built slab on grade with no basements. The buildings will be required to obtain architectural review and approval. 

“Other standards that will apply to these townhouses is the no garage forward design and that the buildings cannot be exactly identical to one another,” Compton-Ring said.

Board member Toby Scott asked about the number of units allowable by right on the property and Compton-Ring confirmed that 21 townhouse units per acre or 38 rental or condominium units per acre may be built in the WR4 zoning district.

“The proposed density is significantly below the underlying WR4 zoning district development standards which would allow up to 52 townhome units on two and a half acres,” Cate Walker of Northwest Design Studio said. “Again, this is just nine units.”

Eight people spoke during the public comment period, seven of whom are residents of River Lakes Drive. Most voiced concerns about parking. Some parking issues stem from the proximity to Smith Fields.

“There are regular tournaments held on that property, and if you’ve ever been there on a Saturday Sunday during the right part of the season, it’s one way, one car width on Parkway, exit and ingress,” said River Lakes Drive resident Steve Harris. “That’s already not being managed well, so you’re inheriting a traffic problem now.”

Other topics of concern were the wetlands, the pond, and the building of townhouses near a single-family home neighborhood.

Doug Peppmeier, a civil engineer with TD&H Engineering responded to most of the comments.

“This is the conditional-use permit step and preliminary plat,” Peppmeier said. “We’re not getting a building permit. Nobody’s going out and breaking ground tomorrow.”

Peppmeier said parking is per city regulations and an environmental assessment is part of the preliminary plat and is a public document. 

“These are not condos, they are townhomes. They’re not high-density apartments,” Peppmeier added. “Townhouses are single-family residences.”

When members of the public continued to speak after the public comment period was closed, board vice chair Whitney Beckham provided instructions and reiterated that the issue will have another public hearing at the upcoming city council meeting.

Board member Jon Heberling said he was concerned about Whitefish’s shortage of affordable housing units. He said this area allows for higher density with multiple-family units that could be affordable.

“I don’t think I can approve this proposal because it doesn’t seem to be going in the right direction as far as affordable housing,” Heberling said.

The Community Development Board voted to recommend the conditional-use permit and the preliminary plat with votes of 4-1, with Heberling voting in opposition both times.

The Whitefish City Council will hear the item at its regular meeting on March 4.