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Whitefish City Council approves contested airport hangar

by JULIE ENGLER
Hagadone News Network | July 5, 2024 12:00 AM

Whitefish City Council on Monday approved a conditional use permit for a 5,400 square-foot hangar at the Whitefish airport despite public opposition.

Only three of the 17 citizens who commented at the meeting were in favor of the building project on the grass landing strip east of town. The opposition pointed to the loss of the viewshed, increased noise and the possibility of more development at the airport. 

The Whitefish Community Development Board recommended denial of the project at its meeting last month.

Before approving the conditional use permit by a vote of 4-1, with Councilor Rebecca Norton in opposition, the council added three conditions: no other buildings are allowed on the city-zoned portion of the property at the airport, the hangar may not be used for significant maintenance or as a fixed fueling facility, and that a bathroom is added to the lounge inside the hangar.

“I’m moving to approve, not because I'm not hearing what people are saying about the noise and the view and what feels like death by a thousand cuts here,” said Councilor Steve Qunell. “If we think we can apply the right conditions to mitigate the use, then I think it behooves the City Council to approve things like this.”

He added that the view will still exist, it will just not be as easy to access.

Councilor Andy Feury noted that Whitefish has had the landing strip for almost 100 years.

“At one time, [the city was] supposed to take care of that airport … and the aviation community stepped up and they took that facility over and improved it and made it a lot better,” Feury said. 

He said he didn’t believe that air traffic would increase because of the added hangar.

“People aren’t going to fly here from New York simply because there’s a hangar now. It’s still going to be a small grass strip,” Feury said. “It’s totally surrounded by private land on all four sides; it can’t get any bigger.”

Bill McKinney, on behalf of the Montana Department of Transportation, requested the permit to build the 23-foot high hangar to house four aircraft. A 400-square-foot e-bike rental area is proposed for users of the hangar, not for public rentals.

Whitefish City Planner Nelson Loring noted that while the airport runway is located in the county, the location of the hangar is within Whitefish city limits and its zoning allows hangars as a conditional use. 

“Since the Community Development Board recommended denial, a couple findings of fact … have been changed … to reflect their concerns and comments,” Loring said. 

The first was that the project does not comply with the growth policy because the proposed hangar would block a scenic vista and viewshed. The other was that the proposed development is anticipated to have a negative impact on noise, dust and smoke as they are expected with the expansion of an airport.

“Never in my 30 years of doing this did I anticipate this much opposition to what I think of as an acceptable use for an acceptable site,” said Christine Bleyhl, architect for the project and representative for the applicant. “I don’t really see how [the viewshed] is that much affected.”

Bleyhl called comments in opposition to the hangar misleading, questionable and unfounded.

Kate McMahon lives very close to the airport. She said goals and policies are part of the growth policy and visual impact is included in the city’s goals and policies. She added that visual impact is very important to the character of the community. 

“I have seen people pull into that parking lot, where the hangar is going to be, set up tripods so they can get photos of the sunrise, of the alpenglow, of rainbows – they get that panoramic view,” McMahon said. 

Other comments echoed concerns for the view and argued that the hangar serves a small sector of the community.

“I don’t feel like the hangar benefits that community enough,” said Whitefish resident Heather Nelson. “Seems like there are too many negatives … how does it benefit [the community]?”

Mike Casey, a local pilot, voiced support for the project.

“I would love to see a hangar built out there that helps support the aviation community,” Casey said, remarking on how the airport used to be overgrown and is now tended. “The local aviation community has taken ownership of that airport.”

THE WHITEFISH Community Development Board voted unanimously to deny recommendation of the proposed project at its June 20 meeting, after hearing several public comments in opposition to the project.

Board member Toby Scott said of the seven people who gave public comment, three of them were in favor of the hangar and they were all pilots.

“There’s not too much other public benefit to anyone else in the community,” Scott said.

Opposition to the project centered mostly on the viewshed from the dog park and the small number of people the hangar would serve.

After board member Jon Heberling made the motion to deny, he said scenic tours on helicopters operating out of the hangar seemed like a possibility and that everything in Whitefish concerning tourism grows, so more business like that could spring up. He added that the residents in the flight pattern would also be adversely affected.

Councilor Giuseppe Caltabiano recused himself from the vote Monday because he said previously that he would support the Community Development Board’s decision.