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Whitefish Council faces decision on Big Mountain housing project

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | February 7, 2022 12:00 AM

A major decision awaits the Whitefish City Council tonight as it considers the controversial large mixed-use development proposed at the southern end of Big Mountain Road.

Arim Mountain Gateway LLC is requesting a planned unit development that would allow for housing to include 318 residential units on 32.7 acres at the intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive. Developers are also asking to rezone just under 4 acres on East Lakeshore Drive with blended residential and limited business district zoning to allow for a neighborhood commercial development.

The project has already been the subject of hours of public comment both in favor and against the development. Council last month received more than 800 written comments on the proposal.

City Council meets at 7:10 p.m. at City Hall and will continue to take public comment.

Those speaking in favor of the project say they support the affordable housing units that are planned, along with constructing necessary rental housing for the community. While those who have opposed it say they’re concerned about worsening traffic and safety issues in an already congested area of town and are concerned about preserving the character of the town.

The project recently became the subject of a series of emails with wealthy donors threatening to cease support of future affordable housing projects in the community if it’s approved. However, city officials have said that the city legally cannot base its decision on possible private funding.

AS PART OF their project the developers behind the Mountain Gateway project are proposing a donation of 8.8 acres of land that could be used to develop future affordable housing at an estimated 48 units, and they are also planning to construct 32 deed-restricted affordable housing units as well.

Those behind the project have said that they view the development as the best way to assist with the lack of affordable housing in Whitefish.

The project calls for 270 apartment units, 36 townhouse units and 12 condominium units.

About 10 acres of open space is planned throughout the project along with developed recreation areas and a trail running along the west side of Big Mountain Road connecting to the existing Wisconsin Avenue bike path on the south end.

In exchange for a zoning deviation to allow a portion of the multi-family buildings to be four stories, the developer is offering a list of community benefits. In addition to the donation of land for housing and the trail, the developer is also dedicating 1.5 acres to the city for a future fire station, creating a SNOW bus stop along Big Mountain Road, and plans to construct a roundabout at the intersection of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive.

Big Mountain Road is a state highway, so the Montana Department of Transportation would have to approve what type of traffic device would be installed at the intersection. The city says MDT would have to sign off on the roundabout before building permits could be issued for the project if it’s approved.

Gross density of the entire site is proposed at 9.72 dwelling units per acre. By the right, the site could be developed with 374 units or by using a PUD offering 10% affordable housing the developer could construct 561 units.

ALSO ON the agenda, Council will look at a petition from four property owners in the U.S. Highway 93 South and KM Ranch Road area to change their fire protection from the Flathead Fire Service Area to the Whitefish Fire Service Area. Based on the interlocal agreement between the Whitefish Fire Service Area and the city, any changes to the fire service boundary must be approved by City Council prior to being presented to the Flathead County Commissioners for final approval.

In a work session at 6 p.m., Council will continue its discussion on medium-term rentals, which are residential rentals that are rented for 30 to 90 days. Council previously decided not to adopt language into city zoning code regarding such rentals until it could further discuss regulations around them.

In addition to in-person at City Hall, the meeting is available to view and comment via Webex.

Instructions can be found on the city’s website at https://www.cityofwhitefish.org/.

Features editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or hdesch@dailyinterlake.com.