Whitefish, county keep up tug of war

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A citizen-initiated zoning plan for the U.S. 93 corridor south of Whitefish seems to have hit a couple of snags that at the very least will prolong the process.

The property owners’ goal is to create more commercial zoning and give them more flexibility in how they can develop their property. For some it will bring their nonconforming-use businesses into compliance and make their property more marketable down the road.

It’s an understandable goal, since there has been a gradual shift from residential to commercial uses over the years. But here’s the rub. The city of Whitefish and Flathead County remain at loggerheads over that stretch of highway — part of the Whitefish doughnut — even though the county won planning control through a state Supreme Court ruling three years ago. The reality is the two local governments need each other to develop a plan for orderly growth along the highway corridor.

Whitefish offered to partner with the county in writing the corridor plan but was flatly rejected by the commissioners. The city still intends to conduct its own U.S. 93 South corridor study, and has provided input to the county.

Sure, the county on its own can put in place the new zoning and create an overlay zone as proposed. During a recent public hearing on the county’s proposal, however, the commissioners were upset to learn the city’s extension-of-services plan calls for utility services to stop at the intersection of U.S. 93 and Montana 40. It would be irresponsible to create zoning that needs city services, the Whitefish planning director told the commissioners, especially when commercial infill could still occur within city limits.

It would seem Whitefish still holds the keys to development of the corridor in the form of water and sewer lines that would need to be extended for any sizable commercial growth.

Whitefish agrees the design standards in the proposed overlay zone are consistent with the city’s, but believes the county is putting the cart before the horse by changing wide swaths of zoning before the future growth of the area is determined.

Another wrinkle to be ironed out is the zoning for the U.S. 93/Montana 40 junction. Right now the plan is to change the zoning to allow uses such as a gas station, a perfectly reasonable use for a key intersection. Residents of the Emerald Heights subdivision near the high-traffic intersection understandably want the zoning to allow more subdued commercial uses.

Any major changes will send the proposal back to the drawing board with the Planning Board. One of the commissioners wants more road accesses penciled in on the southern end of the corridor. That, too, would require further study and a reboot of the planning process.

So don’t look for a resolution of the U.S. 93 corridor plan anytime soon. Remember, the city and county fought over control of that area for close to a decade. It may be too much to hope Whitefish and the county will ever be able to mend their differences. But for the sake of those embattled property owners, we hope this proposal doesn’t take that long.

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