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Whitefish US 93 corridor plan a laudable effort

by Daily Inter Lake
| July 11, 2021 12:00 AM

The city of Whitefish will debut its long-awaited Highway 93 South Corridor Plan at an open house July 15, unveiling goals and proposed actions for traffic improvement and land use over the next decade.

Whitefish leaders talked at length for years about needing a corridor plan to manage growth along the city’s highway “strip,” and talk turned to action in 2018 when a steering committee formed and the process began in earnest, guided by Whitefish Planning Director Dave Taylor and long-range planner Hilary Lindh.

The result is a 109-page draft plan that can now be studied, picked apart and fine-tuned into a manageable tool to address how the highway looks and functions.

Over the past couple of decades there’s been increased interest among city leaders and residents about how the entrance to Whitefish should look. The meandering sidewalks and grass boulevards along the commercial strip leading south to the intersection with Montana 40 didn’t just happen by accident.

After U.S. 93 was expanded to a five-lane highway in the late 1990s, the City Council at the time passed landscaping requirements for property owners along the strip, and many longtime residents will recall the squabbles over those new rules. But fast-forward to today and most would agree that landscaping creates a pleasant entry into Whitefish.

Interestingly, one of the action items in the proposed corridor plan says landscaping standards should be revised to require variation in plant heights, massing and colors, and limit the amount of turf or grass used. We’ll see how that flies with property owners.

Among the suggested landscaping revisions is incentivizing the use of native species that minimize irrigation water for commercial properties. Seems like a no-brainer.

As with any plan, the devil is in the details, and Whitefish residents would be well-advised to study the document and ask questions at the open house. If you make it past the corridor plan goals, which include the expected overarching themes — abundant green space, shade trees, better river access, protected bike lanes, and so on — there are some interesting proposals in the “Action Items” section.

For example, one proposed city action is creating a highway transition zoning district “to ensure properties at the entrance to Whitefish that annex into the city in the future are developed in a manner consistent with the community’s vision” for that area.

We hate to dredge up the years-long battle between Whitefish and Flathead County for planning control of the 2-mile “doughnut” outside of Whitefish, but the land-use issues linger. It was a contentious fight that went to the Montana Supreme Court, and ultimately the county won.

With the doughnut outcome no doubt still in mind, Whitefish proposes to “petition and encourage” Flathead County to develop a zoning compliance permit as a tool to improve compliance in the Highway Overlay Zone.

The draft corridor plan also calls for fostering dialogue and coordinated planning between Whitefish and the county. It’s a laudable goal, in theory.

There are a lot of details in the corridor plan for those willing to dig them out. Or show up at the open house at 5 p.m. Thursday at Whitefish City Hall. The time to speak up is now.