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Whitefish updates tourism management plan

by HEIDI DESCH
Daily Inter Lake | June 17, 2024 12:00 AM

Whitefish City Council on Monday is poised to vote on an update to its Sustainable Tourism Management Plan that includes six action items.

The plan, approved in 2020, seeks to incorporate sustainability principles into destination marketing and tourism management efforts with the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau. 

City Council meets at 7:10 p.m. at City Hall, 418 E. Second St.

The plan includes five focus areas — housing and development, environment, economic diversification, tourism and transportation. 

Based on changes in economic and community conditions, the sustainable tourism plan committee decided an update was needed in the plan. Results from the survey conducted last fall indicate that only 22% of respondents agreed with the statement that tourism makes Whitefish a good place to live. That compares to 54% who disagreed with the sentiment.

In addition to the survey, focus group discussions occurred and a community meeting was held to solicit feedback on recommendations for tourism. Through this process, the committee updated the goals and policies, along with the action items.

The first action item related to public outreach on the benefits of a tourism economy, calls for the tourism committee, Explore Whitefish and the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce to work together to publish annual reports on sustainable tourism updates and accomplishments, along with holding community meetings with panels and tourism updates. 

The second action item calls for the promotion of shoulder season retreats and other low impact events. 

Creating a public transit working group and supporting efforts to create a connected trail system are both action items. 

For housing, the committee would coordinate with nonprofits on outreach, funding and support for affordable housing. And the committee would conduct outreach with local businesses on sustainable green business practices. 

ALSO ON the agenda, Council will hold a public hearing on amending its zoning regulations for stream, lake and wetland buffers. The change would allow for an accessory building in the buffer area to be 120 square feet in size as is more common for a shed size and consistent with building code exemptions. 

It will also consider approving the proposed preliminary budget for fiscal year 2025. 

A vote is planned on awarding a construction contract for the Grouse Mountain Park and Rest Area parking lot to Cutting Edge Excavating for $209,000. The parking lot is in a state of disrepair and requires complete reconstruction to improve drainage and surface conditions. 

During a work session, at 5:30 p.m. Council will hear a presentation on the Montana Department of Transportation’s current projects and then review the proposed Whitefish Community Housing Annexation Policy. 

The annexation policy comes out of the 2022 Whitefish Community Housing Roadmap that provides objectives and action items to address the shortage of community housing. One of the objectives is to increase the number of primary residences currently at 70%. 

“In other words, the majority of new housing units should be purchased by locals or those intending to make Whitefish their full-time residence, as opposed to second homeowners, corporations, or investors who do not intend to occupy the home,” City Manager Dana Smith said in a memo to Council. 

To achieve the objective, the roadmap calls for the city to address annexations as they can impact the mix of primary and secondary residences. 

The policy would require, as a condition of annexation, that a deed-restriction be placed on the property limiting occupancy to at least 70% of all housing units annexed, or created after annexation, by a household where at least one member is a local resident which is defined as occupying the home at least 10 months out of the year. 

The policy is only applicable to properties which are voluntarily requested by property owners. The deed restriction would only limit ownership — the city legally can’t limit rental units. 

For large subdivision annexations, up to 30% of properties may be released from deed restriction.

Outlining a number of pros and cons, Smith points out that positives are that the policy is low-cost to the city and would provide housing for locals while providing a long-term solution. 

Drawbacks include developers choosing to do projects in the county as opposed to going through annexation and deed restrictions place a limitation on developers when financing and selling a project. The action could also be prohibited by a future Montana Legislature and has a potential litigation risk. 

Feedback is requested from Council on whether it will support a housing program through annexation. 

Deputy Editor Heidi Desch may be reached at 758-4421 or hdesch@dailyinterlake.com.