Whitefish corridor plan advances to commissioners

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A corridor zoning plan and overlay district for U.S. 93 south of Whitefish have been sent to the Flathead County commissioners with a recommendation of approval by the Planning Board.

The commissioners will have the final decision in adopting the corridor plan. That public hearing has not been scheduled yet.

The Planning Board held two public hearings last week, one to change the zoning on 490 acres south of Whitefish and the other to create a new overlay district for about 1.5 miles of the highway corridor south of the Montana 40 intersection.

A revised plan emerged following an onslaught of public input during the initial Planning Board hearing in January.

The proposed business service district zoning now includes only properties that largely already have commercial land uses. The area proposed for secondary business has decreased from 82 to 73 acres, and the proposed business service district has been reduced from 222 to 81 acres.

The amount of acreage on the south end of the corridor area that would change from agricultural with a 20-acre minimum lot size to suburban agricultural with a 2.5-acre minimum lot size would remain the same. Properties that were diverted from the proposed business service district are proposed for suburban agricultural zoning with the 2.5-acre lot size.

A major sticking point for the Planning Board was how to mitigate impact for the Emerald Heights residential neighborhood near the intersection of U.S. 93 and Montana 40. The plan calls for secondary business zoning at the high-profile intersection, a designation that would allow high-impact uses such as convenience stores and gas stations that typically are open long hours with bright lighting and lots of in-and-out traffic.

One Emerald Heights resident said the 30-foot buffer required around commercial businesses “doesn’t mitigate anything.” He said he doesn’t want a truck stop 30 feet from his back door.

The board opted to forward a favorable recommendation on the corridor plan with the caveat that the commissioners consider business service district zoning for the Emerald Heights area because it allows less intrusive commercial development.

The Highway 93 South Whitefish Corridor Plan sprang from a citizen-initiated effort to establish more zoning flexibility in how property owners can use or develop their property. Land-use planning decisions were controlled by the city of Whitefish for several years before a legal battle erupted with the county and the Montana Supreme Court ceded planning control to the county.

Independent land planner Dave DeGrandpre of Charlo was retained by the property owners several years ago to draft the corridor plan.

DeGrandpre addressed issues such as strip development, traffic safety and compatibility with Whitefish zoning at the hearings last week.

“I’m not going to say there won’t be additional commercial development. I think there will be,” he said.

However, DeGrandpre added he believes the scale of commercial development will be dependent on development already in place. He also noted the business service district zoning is patterned after Whitefish’s business service district, and that the county secondary business zoning mirrors what Whitefish has.

The corridor plan calls for landscape buffers and a portion of side or rear parking to mitigate the visual impacts of commercial development, he said.

“Flathead County needs to work with the [Department of Transportation] to ask for a traffic study,” DeGrandpre said.

The Montana Department of Transportation said the number of approaches and additional vehicle trips further development of the highway corridor would create are concerns.

Karen Reeves, a Whitefish-area resident, called for an innovative approach in figuring out how to handle all the access roads to U.S. 93 in the corridor area. She foresees rapid commercial growth if the zoning is approved because many businesses “want to be attached to Whitefish” without being in city limits.

“Whitefish has tried to do it the right way and build out slowly and shouldn’t be punished for it now,” Reeves said.

The city of Whitefish tried unsuccessfully to forge a collaborative planning effort with the county in the corridor plan area where Whitefish once had planning control. The county commissioners recently rejected the city’s offer to partner on the corridor plan.

The Whitefish City Council now wants to conduct its own U.S. 93 South corridor study and is working to budget money for such a study in the coming year.

Planning Board Chairman Jeff Larsen said he believes the corridor plan is compatible with Whitefish zoning.

“I’ve tried pretty damn hard to work with the city of Whitefish, but it goes both ways,” Larsen said.

Board member Ron Schlegel agreed, stressing how the Planning Board “tried to get everybody together.”

“These poor people [in the corridor area] have been prisoners for over 10 years,” Schlegel commented.

Board member Dean Sirucek asked Whitefish Planning Director David Taylor to relay a message to the Whitefish City Council, saying he felt “underwhelmed by the participation of Whitefish.” Board member Greg Stevens also took the city of Whitefish to task in his comments.

Citizens for a Better Flathead Executive Director Mayre Flowers, who talked about the need for corridor standards county-wide during the public hearing, issued a statement following the May 10 meeting, saying the Planning Board members’ “tirade against the city of Whitefish and its residents ... was unacceptable and in violation of the fundamental principles of civil discourse adopted by both the three cities and the county a number of years ago.

“Fundamental to our democratic process is a decision-making framework that invites respectful debate and an information rich decision-making process,” Flowers said. “Not only do continued tirades and name-calling against the city of Whitefish and its residents at a public meeting like this create an environment of intimidation and discourage public participation in critical land use decisions, but such tirades lay bare planning board member failures to be objective, fact-based, and unbiased in their review and recommendation to the county commissioners.”

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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