When Velvet Phillips-Sullivan was elected to the Whitefish City Council last November, she looked forward to taking a stand against development, which she feels may threaten the unique character of Whitefish.
“I was idealistic when I was elected,” Phillips-Sullivan says. But now, “I have a lot less [control] than I thought I would.”
Phillips-Sullivan’s sobering realization stems from state law.
Until the 1995 and 1997 Legislatures passed amendments restricting local development regulations, communities such as Whitefish had much broader authority to decline developers’ proposals. Now, City Council can forbid development adhering to zoning rules only if it can scientifically prove the development is a risk to public health or the environment.
In other words, “preserving Whitefish’s character” is not currently a legal reason to deny developers.
“Neighborhood compatibility used to be one of the factors, but the Legislature took that out,” says Whitefish City Attorney John Phelps, which is why he recently explained to a group of Geddes Ave. residents attempting to block two new subdivisions that he “didn’t think they could lawfully do that.”
In response, a loose coalition of residents has so far gathered 113 of the 385 registered voter signatures they need to get an initiative on November’s ballot that would put a one-year moratorium on new subdivisions in Whitefish, according to coalition member and Whitefish occupational therapist Rebecca Norton.
At a June 17 meeting, another member, Charles Sullivan, said, “We just need a breather” from Whitefish’s rapid growth “so that everyone can step back and look at the bigger picture for a while.”
Whitefish City-County Planning Board Chair and House District 4 candidate Mike Jopek sympathizes with the coalition’s concerns, but thinks a moratorium is an “emotional response,” and one that could be disastrous for local builders and further escalate housing prices.
Jopek says he’d “challenge people to get more active instead,” by seizing control of their neighborhood zoning rules—a measure on which the Geddes group is already working. Jopek adds that, if nothing else, the prospect of a moratorium initiative will open up Whitefish’s ongoing development debate.