The Whitefish Planning Board voted by a 4-0 margin to recommend approval of a developer’s requests related to an apartment development that could bring 146 units of housing to Whitefish, including 44 permanently deed-restricted units for people making between 60% and 80% of the area median income.
The Whitefish Corridor Community is proposed for 6.55 acres of land north of Edgewood Place between Texas and Colorado avenues, and the 146 units of housing would be divided among seven buildings on the property. Those buildings would range in height between two and three stories, and would contain a mixture of one- and two-bedroom apartments. The land in question is a combination of 2.33 acres of WR-4 high density multifamily residential zoning, and 4.23 acres of WR-2 two-family residential district zoning.
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The applicant for the development is Ruis Texco LLC., a company owned by Columbia Falls developer Mick Ruis. Ruis Texco has asked the city for approval of a planned unit development for the project, and for a variance that would allow it to deviate from the city’s parking setbacks for open air parking adjacent to single family use zones. That variance would be to allow for the developer to decrease the required setback distance from 15 feet to 5 feet.
Lauri Moffet-Fehlberg, the senior vice president of DAHLIN Architecture, presented on behalf of the developer, and said that the request for the variance in setback requirements is to better allow for some of the proposed multi-story buildings to be situated more centrally on the development site, and thus further away from nearby homes.
City staff had recommended conditional approval of the project in a staff report submitted ahead of the planning board’s May 18 meeting. Among the 11 conditions of approval put forward by city staff are requirements that the developer install a crosswalk and improve the sidewalk ramp on the west side of Colorado Avenue, and work with the Montana Department of Transportation to improve the timing of the intersection at Edgewood Place and Wisconsin Avenue. In a report, city staff found that based on the submitted Traffic Impact Study, the increase in delay at studied intersections would not create an unreasonable impact to the transportation system “such that safety may be compromised,” and that intersections at East Second Street and Bake Avenue, and at Wisconsin Avenue and Woodside Lane, would have acceptable levels of service whether or not the project is developed. City staff also found the development to be in compliance with the city’s growth policy.
The board voted to amend one condition of approval, changing the language about buffering requirements in an attempt to broaden the requirements for what buffering should accomplish between the development’s parking lot and the homes it will border. The amendment requires that buffering along the edges of the parking lot must be installed to prevent headlights from shining on adjacent properties, and to provide privacy for adjacent housing.
Board Chair Steve Qunell acknowledged that the additional buffering requirements might be redundant in comparison with what the city would already require, but indicated that he felt something more was needed to address the concerns of people who live nearby.
Wendy Compton-Ring, a senior planner with the city of Whitefish, explained that in assessing the project, staff noted that a number of properties to the north of the project site already have fencing in place that would separate those properties from the parking lot. She said that with that in mind, staff believed that the primary concern would be headlights shining into backyards, something she said they believed could be mitigated by the required five feet of dense landscaping, possibly involving a berm or low fence.
During discussion, Qunell also asked Whitefish Public Works Director Craig Workman to discuss the stormwater runoff plan requirements the city would impose on the development. Multiple people during the public comment period expressed concerns about runoff snow melt and water running off the development property and onto their land, something they connected to work that had been done to develop the Edgewood Place roadway.
One commenter, Patrick Davey, said he agrees that affordable housing is something Whitefish needs, but that there are small things with the project that were being overlooked. Among Davey’s concerns was the loss of privacy for himself and other people who live on Waverly Place to the north of the development site.
He said one of his main issues with the project is the high watermark, saying that pooling water in one area had created a pond with ducks.
“So I’m not sure what filling with concrete and just paving over is going to do to me and everyone else, if it’s just going to push water into all of our yards, or if it’s just going to be constantly flooded above it.”
Workman said soil filling in the area that has already taken place is considered development, and that the city’s engineering standards will hold the project to its pre-development figures for runoff. The development will have to meet the city’s 100-year storm requirements in developing water treatment, water capture and slow release on the site.
Before casting her vote in favor, board member Allison Linville acknowledged the frustration expressed about infrastructure issues in the city, but said that they can’t be pinned on any one project, and that she believes this project’s location is appropriate and that the deed-restricted units included would be a great benefit to the community.
“I think this can make a big impact on our housing needs in the city,” Linville said.
Those housing needs came up during public comment, including from some people who live near the development site and had expressed some concerns about the proposed plans.
Doug Rhodes, who owns property on Waverly Place, said he was concerned about the high-water table and water related issues, as well as an influx of traffic and cars at nighttime.
“I think it’s good that they’re going to provide 20% of (affordable) housing. That’s very good. And I support that. But I think it’s a very dense project. And I’d like to see more landscaping and a buffer between existing residences,” Rhodes said.
The planning board heard from around 20 people during public comment, with almost no one explicitly calling for rejection of the project. Multiple people who spoke acknowledged Whitefish’s need for housing, including affordable housing, but also expressed their concerns about aspects of the project, including potential groundwater runoff impacts, exacerbation of traffic problems, and a loss of privacy because of the development’s proximity to nearby homes. Several people also unequivocally called for the planning board to approve the development.
Shelter WF, a nonprofit focused on housing inequality that formed after the city’s rejection of the Mountain Gateway Development, organized support for the Whitefish Corridor Community project, and four of its board members spoke at the meeting in favor of the development.
“This development will provide at least 44 real life people with permanently affordable homes and will provide at least an additional 102 real life people with stable rental homes,” said Shelter WF President Nathan Dugan. “Given that many units have multiple bedrooms, we’re most likely talking about more than 146 people being positively impacted.”
Among those who also spoke in favor of the project was Cameron Blake. Blake is a board member for Flathead Families for Responsible Growth (FFRG), a nonprofit group that first formed to oppose the Mountain Gateway Development. Blake voiced her belief that the city needs to continue to be conscious of congestion and traffic issues north of the viaduct, and how developing with density will impact those issues, but she said that FFRG could support the project given that there is a satisfactory plan in place to address stormwater runoff concerns.
Qunell briefly delved into some statistics surrounding the housing situation in Whitefish as he explained why he would be voting in support of the development. He noted that the median listed rent in Whitefish is $3,000 a month, and that it’s been determined the city needs 580 new below market rate apartment units by 2030 in order to keep up with growth. Qunell also spoke about the traffic issues north of the viaduct.
“As a community we have said over and over again that we support affordable housing. With that comes some inconveniences as well. And we just have to accept that. If we are going to put our money where our mouth is and provide housing for the people that want to live and work here, we are all going to have to deal with the inconvenience,” Qunell said.
Also voting in favor of approval was board member Whitney Beckham, and Vice Chair John Middleton.