Tie-breaker vote pushes Whitefish housing project forward

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A split Whitefish City Council on Monday approved a controversial 54-unit apartment complex on Whitefish’s north side, but it took a tie-breaker vote to move the project forward.

Mayor John Muhlfeld broke the tie 4-3, paving the way for a conditional-use permit for the project that features two buildings on Skyles Place in the residential neighborhood north of downtown.

Council members Katie Williams, Melissa Hartman and Ryan Hennen voted in favor of the project, while Andy Feury, Richard Hildner and Frank Sweeney voted against it, forcing a tie-breaking vote from the mayor.

Muhlfeld said the city recognizes the traffic problems on Wisconsin Avenue, but said impacts from this project would be negligible.

“To have denied this project would have been arbitrary at best,” he said following the meeting. “It conforms with the Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Plan and the high-density multi-family zoning designation. This community has advocated for workforce housing for decades and this project provides the exact type of housing product identified in the city’s adopted strategic housing plan which is widely supported by our residents and developers.”

The decision was a major reversal of the council’s perceived direction just two weeks prior when it unanimously voted to delay a decision on the request with some council members saying they intended to deny the project.

The developer’s plan calls for constructing two buildings with the north building to include 12 studio and 12 one-bedroom units and the south building to include 30 units made up of six studio, 12 one-bedroom and 12 two-bedroom apartments.

Neighbors of the project have raised concerns over increased traffic in the already busy Wisconsin Avenue area and claimed the project does not fit with the character of the neighborhood. However, the developers of the project say their goal is to provide necessary housing for the community in a place that is walkable to downtown.

Hartman said the project provides housing through infill and because of its location will encourage pedestrian traffic.

“Growth is happening here way faster than anyone wants it to and I wish I had control over that, but I don’t,” she said.

The property is zoned WR-4, or high density multi-family residential, which is intended for higher-density residential purposes and limited non-residential uses. The Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Plan adopted last year also designates the property as high-density residential with the intent that it would facilitate redevelopment of the property.

Williams said she was swayed by the zoning of the property and its designation for high-density residential development.

“To the neighborhood — I get it — growth is painful especially when it’s in your backyard,” she said. “I’ve been looking for facts to deny this, but I can’t seem to justify that. We’re in Whitefish where people want to live and this project is infill.”

Feury said he understood why some council members felt they had to support the project, but the objections raised by the neighbors was enough to garner his vote against it.

“I can understand why the neighborhood is adamantly opposed to it and doesn’t want to see it,” he said. “I have heard what the neighborhood has had to say.”

The property is currently developed with an auto repair business, commercial storage business and three residential homes.

Architect Mark Johnson, representing the developer, said the property is ready for redevelopment.

“We wanted to provide long-term affordable housing,” he said. “The real demand we have now is a place for people to live. The traffic issues are not new and we can work on that.”

David DeGrandpre, a land-use planner representing the developer, said the property was specifically designated in the Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Plan as a place that could provide housing for the community. He pointed out that the 2016 Housing Needs Assessment said the city needed 375 market rate apartments as part of the 980 new housing units total needed by the city by 2020.

“This project is specifically targeted to meet a need that has been identified,” he said.

Several neighbors of the project returned again on Monday during the general comment period for the meeting to make their case for denial, but also to speak about growth in Whitefish.

“Several of us are frustrated with what’s happening with development in Whitefish,” Scott Countryman said. “There needs to be a moratorium on new development.”

Leo Keane said there is an influx of high-density development coming in and the town can only handle so much.

“There becomes a lesser quality of life for us that remain here,” he said. “We need to grow slower. We don’t need to bring in so many new people that it becomes hard to live here.”

A traffic study completed as part of the development application with the city showed the project would generate a total of 395 new weekday trips when completed.

The study indicates that the project would not create any new roadway capacity problems, but does recommend the developer work with the city to develop a plan to implement a left-hand turn lane on Wisconsin Avenue northbound onto Skyles Place.

Wisconsin Avenue is a state highway, which prevents the city from completing projects within the right-of-way for the street. Planning staff, however, recommended the developer provide just over $11,000 as a cash in lieu fee to assist in funding a future turn lane for the road.

Muhlfeld said the city will be ramping up its efforts to engage state legislators and the Montana Department of Transportation to “overhaul Wisconsin Avenue to improve pedestrian and vehicular safety.”

Since traffic would likely use Iowa Avenue, the city did say it would require the developer to work with the Public Works Department to implement a plan for slowing traffic in the area.

The developer is listed as 519 Skyles Place LLC in Redondo Beach, California. The project requires a conditional-use permit because it is split into two buildings.

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