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Repeat dock offenses rile councilors; viaduct upgrades move ahead

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | July 10, 2024 1:00 AM

The Whitefish City Council last week considered a request for lakeshore variances, approval to get bids for the viaduct improvement project and direction for building the Whitefish Yards trails.

Two variances to the Whitefish Lake and Lakeshore Regulations for a dock at 727 LM Beach Lane were requested. One request was for a variance to the riparian setback because the property does not have enough lake frontage to meet the 20-foot minimum setback. 

The second was a variance to the dock size regulations, to install a 380-square-foot dock, which would be about 190 square feet more than what is allowed, given the lot’s lake frontage.

The property was also found to have an unpermitted dock about 10 years ago which was removed only to be reinstalled. On Monday night, city planner Nelson Loring said he received word last week that an I-dock was installed on the property.

“I went out with the Lakeshore Protection Committee and the Whitefish Lake Institute Wednesday … I did take video and there was an I-dock installed,” Loring said. “Earlier this evening I was informed that that dock has since been taken out.”

The councilors were visibly riled over the applicant’s multiple offenses.

“So we’ve had two docks installed without a permit within a 12-month period?” Councilor Andy Feury questioned. “Do these people not know that we have lakeshore protection regulations in this community?”

The council voted unanimously to approve the riparian setback variance due to the irregular nature of the lot, but denied the second variance and required the owner to return with a plan for a dock. The applicant will also need to obtain an after-the-fact permit.

Nelson noted the cost of an after-the-fact permit is four times the regular permit fee.

WHITEFISH PUBLIC Works Director Craig Workman said the city has been working with WGM Group for more than two years on the Viaduct Improvement Project.  

At a work session in September, the council directed staff to pursue the following elements of the project: widening of the existing bike/ped lanes on either side of the viaduct through the relocation of the existing jersey barriers, removal of the southbound slip lane on the west side of the intersection, installation of standard decorative street lights with flower baskets and irrigation, and gateway landscaping components.

On June 12, Workman received word from Montana Department of Transportation that they “cannot approve any landscaping in the railroad right-of-way, as it is not allowed under the MDT easement.”

“So we’re going to have to go back to the drawing board on the landscaping components and work with BNSF on that,” said Workman. “Rather than delay the critical safety aspects of the project, I am recommending approval to move forward with the bidding of [the other elements of the project.]”

The total estimated construction cost is $665,000 and the preliminary fiscal year 2025 budget includes $700,000 for the project.

The council voted 5-1 to authorize staff to get bids for the project with Councilor Giuseppe Caltabiano in opposition.

WORKMAN ASKED the council to continue to discuss the construction and maintenance costs for the trail improvements near the Whitefish Yards project, formerly known as 95 Karrow. The council voted unanimously to authorize bidding for construction of the northern part of the trail.

The preliminary plat for the project on Karrow Avenue was approved in 2018 and included a pedestrian bridge crossing the Whitefish River along with offsite trails on the north and east ends of the project connecting to the existing trail network. 

Construction of the eastern portion of the trail is estimated to cost nearly $260,000 and the cost of the northern section is estimated at about $123,000.

Multiple discussions were spurred by confusion over who would be responsible for the construction and maintenance of those trails. 

“We've been working with [BNSF] and DNRC on the situation since last August,” Workman said. “We’re optimistic that we may be close to an amicable solution.”

EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of the Northwest Montana Community Land Trust, Kim Morisaki, requested that the city contribute $60,000 from its Affordable Housing Fund to facilitate the purchase of two additional homes in the Trailview neighborhood.

“In the past nine months, Northwest Montana Community Land Trust has been able to add six homes in the Trailview development off of Monegan into the Community Land Trust inventory and sell them to people in the Whitefish workforce who were between 70% and 120% area median income,” Morisaki said. “You allowed us to lift the deed restriction off of those homes and put the Community Land Trust ground lease on, instead.”

She thanked the council for taking that action. She said the process has been a great one and there were two more opportunities to add homes to the trust’s inventory and sell them to locals.

The council voted unanimously to lift the deed restriction and contribute the requested funds in order to provide affordable housing.