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Major expansion for The Springs OK'd by Council

by JULIE ENGLER
Whitefish Pilot | June 12, 2024 12:00 AM

After hearing what Councilor Ben Davis called “thoughtful feedback” from the public,  Whitefish City Council last week approved a planned unit development for an expansion of The Springs at Whitefish. 

Public comments about improving outdoor access for residents of the senior living facility caused the council to consider postponing the matter. Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to allow the applicant to move forward with the project.

The development expands The Springs, located at 1501 River Lakes Parkway, by adding 80 independent living units. The plan also includes a separate, age-restricted multi-family building with 44 units. Four units in the existing building are proposed to be converted to eight memory care units.

The developer will install a 10-foot wide shared use path around the project and connect the existing path to the north and east. Street trees and streetlights will be installed.

In return for the public benefit of the path, the applicant requested two deviations: one to increase the height to 45 feet and the other to reduce the number of bicycle parking spaces required.

“One item of note is they’re providing 254 parking spaces where our requirements would require a minimum of 113, so it’s quite a bit more,” said Whitefish Senior Planner Wendy Compton-Ring. “We still would encourage the applicant to reduce their overall parking just to reduce impervious surfaces and the Public Works Department will work with the applicant in this regard.” 

The plan shows open space areas throughout the property totaling 40% of the site.

Nine people spoke during public comment, each voicing their support for the project while sharing concerns and suggestions for making the plan better for the residents of The Springs and the community at large. Most wanted to see easier access to the outdoors.

Rachel Schmidt of Safe Trails Whitefish said the organization is thankful for and supportive of the proposed expansion. She said the elderly population deserves to have direct access to the outdoor recreation and natural experiences the rest of Whitefish enjoys. 

“Safe Trails Whitefish would love to see commitment from the city and parks board … to elevate the priority of developing and funding the River Lake City Park and accompanying path system as well as working with The Springs to provide their residents direct access and connection … to access what will most likely be an amazing city park,” Schmidt said.

Landscape architect Bruce Boody expressed his support of the project and said, after studying the site plan, there are some changes that would better serve the residents of The Springs. He said they should be able to comfortably go outside and walk.

“Walking on a sidewalk next to a bunch of parked cars and a driveway is not necessarily a comfortable and safe place to walk,” Boody said. “We’re asking if the consultants can take a second look at some of the pedestrian circulation on the site.” 

Councilor Frank Sweeney moved to postpone the vote due to the concerns, but the motion failed by a vote of 1-3 with Steve Qunell, Davis and Giuseppe Caltabiano in opposition. Caltabiano moved to approve the planned unit development and the motion passed unanimously.

“I want to trust … that parties will find a way, even if not legally enforceable at this point, to work hand in hand because it looks like we’re all going to be neighbors in those rooms,” Caltabiano said. “I really wish it will find a good outcome for the community.”

Qunell thanked the developer and acknowledged that he was now facing requests for a major change in the plans. In May, the Whitefish Community Development Board moved to recommend the project but not recommend the reduced bicycle parking zoning. Qunell is the board chair.

“If we had had this information at the Community Development Board meeting … we could have made some substantial progress leading up to today,” Qunell said. 

Caltabiano suggested the public participate in the Community Development Board public hearings, noting that the board heard only one public comment, whereas the council heard nine. The Community Development Board meets in City Council Chambers at 6 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month.