After being put on hold for a few weeks, Whitefish City Council recently approved a rezoning for a 7-acre property near the end of Pheasant Run which has drawn significant opposition from residents of a nearby neighborhood.
Jeff Northrup’s application on behalf of Kurt Vickman for a zoning amendment to the recently annexed property west of Highway 93 requested a change in county zoning to a split zoning of two-family residences and secondary businesses. The zoning change was unanimously approved by Council at its regular meeting on May 16.
Rezoning in this area drew opposition from residents of the Park Knoll neighborhood due to density and traffic issues, but after the developer worked with neighbors to address concerns, most withdrew their opposition when the last public hearing.
At the May 2 council meeting, Mayor John Muhlfeld and two councilors were absent, leading the council to postpone the vote on Vickman’s rezoning application despite Planning Director Dave Taylor saying that the requested zoning was consistent with the city’s Highway 93 South Corridor Plan. City staff as well as the Whitefish Planning Board recommended approval of the zoning changes.
The property was annexed to the city in March. It is divided by the future extension of Baker Avenue which is planned in the city plans, thus leading to split zoning.
Currently, Vickman’s property is surrounded by three different areas. The zoning to the north of the parcel is industrial, to the west and south it is zoned WLR, and to the east is general commercial.
“We consider the carefully designed duplex lots to be compatible with the need for higher density along this thoroughfare while providing an appropriate transition from commercial to the east and industrial to the north,” said Vickman said.
Vickman met with residents of the Park Knoll neighborhood, the area abutting his property, and Adam Kincheloe, owner of the lot south of the plot, ahead of the May 2 council meeting to discuss future rezoning. Vickman and neighbors described the meeting as positive and called Vickman “very reasonable” and “open and honest”, but they still disagreed on the most appropriate zoning.
Council’s decision to delay a vote on the rezoning issue gave Vickman and neighbors more time to discuss the plan. They were able to identify the biggest problem and come to an agreement. Vickman has committed to reducing density along the southwest portion of the property and increasing setbacks to 25 feet from the current 20 feet.
Kincheloe and Park Knoll resident Karen Giesy had each opposed the issue twice, but after discussing the density issues with Vickman they are now in favor of the plan, but have expressed concerns about the policy of annexation of the city and parts of the transport plan. .
“At the December meeting, when you approved the Highway 93 Corridor Plan, you suggested that development would be discouraged if it didn’t have direct access to a traffic light on the highway,” Giesy said. “The people of Whitefish are tired of one thing being said and then you turn around and (do) something different.”
Park Knoll resident David Hunt had also spoken out against the rezoning before, but now supports it.
“This wouldn’t be possible without the participation of Kurt and the members of the neighborhood who are here to cooperatively resolve this issue for a better outcome,” Hunt said. “We got a better buffer and lower density in the back, which is what we’ve always been looking for.”
Hunt agreed there were issues with the city’s current annexation policy and made a suggestion for the future.
“There are gaps in the rezoning and development processes. If there is, maybe a citizen engagement step required where you can address them in a better, more frank and open dialogue between the neighbors and the developer, we can get better results,” added Hunt.
Councilor Steve Qunell said he agrees there is some “break in our annexation process” and he hopes the council will fix it. He said the problem is not just in the annexation process, it is in the whole planning process.
“There needs to be a way for residents who will be affected, who are near any project, to have the chance to come and talk to the developer about it,” Qunell said.