Citizens group forms to oppose Mountain Gateway project

·6 min read

Oct. 24—A new nonprofit group called Flathead Families for Responsible Growth has formed in response to the proposed Mountain Gateway development at the base of Big Mountain, a sizable project the group says will negatively impact water quality, traffic and the small-town way of life in Whitefish.

The momentum of Flathead Families' citizen-driven opposition of Arim Mountain Gateway's plan to build 318 housing units along with commercial development at the junction of Big Mountain Road and East Lakeshore Drive was on full display at Thursday's Whitefish Planning Board meeting as the crowd spilled into the hallway and filled City Hall.

After more than four hours of public testimony — the lion's share in opposition of Mountain Gateway — the board opted to continue the public hearing at its next meeting on Nov. 18.

"It was an incredible turnout; we were just floored and humbled by how many came," said Whitney Geiger, a board member of Flathead Families for Responsible Growth. "Our community members were so informed and articulate."

Hundreds of Whitefish area residents also tapped into the Planning Board meeting online.

The group had submitted a petition against the project, signed by 3,500 citizens, to the city on Oct. 12, and more than 300 letters in opposition were delivered to the city.

The Planning Board meeting was the first formal public meeting for the proposed project. Once the board votes whether or not to recommend approval of Mountain Gateway, the recommendation will be forwarded to the Whitefish City Council, which has the final say in accepting or rejecting the project.

FLATHEAD FAMILIES' leadership includes a wide cross-section of citizens who have united in opposition to Mountain Gateway. The group's board of directors includes several longtime community leaders. In addition to Geiger, board members are Jeff Allen, Carol Atkinson, Brad Bulkley, John Collins, Murray Craven, Richard Hildner, Mike Jenson and Carolyn Pitman. Organizers said the name of the group reflects the broad swath of residents, both city and county citizens, that would be affected by such a sizable development.

"Our town is small and this is extraordinarily huge," said Atkinson, a longtime Whitefish leader and philanthropist. "If this kind of development goes through, it opens the door to other developers [proposing similar developments]. That's why we're mustering the troops."

Geiger stressed that the group is not "anti-development," but rather wants to advocate for responsible growth.

"We won't allow growth to outpace the vital facilities and services that support us all," Geiger said.

The developers' application for Mountain Gateway is lacking in details, the group asserts, particularly in terms of traffic impacts — including concerns about emergency vehicles having the ability to get in and out — and the adverse effects such a large development could have on nearby Whitefish Lake.

"It's irresponsible to approve this without due diligence," Geiger said.

WHAT FLATHEAD Families rather would like to see is growth "that is responsible in scope and scaled to the surrounding neighborhood."

To that end, the group hired the Weinberg & Hromadka law firm, along with David K.W. Wilson Jr. of Morrison Sherwood Wilson and Deola, to submit a legal response to Mountain Gateway's application. That response was sent to the city on Oct. 12. The document outlines the group's concerns and legal position.

The group also hired a traffic engineer and hydrology firm to provide further opinions about traffic and water concerns.

Flathead Families asserts in its legal position that the development density proposed presents a danger to public safety due to fire and other dangers related to emergency services, and that the zoning amendment is not justified by any clear community benefit.

In an interview with the Inter Lake, Jenson, a former Whitefish mayor, pointed out that the Wisconsin Avenue Corridor Plan, completed just three years ago, already is outdated given the unprecedented community growth since then. Gridlock along Wisconsin Avenue, the access road to Whitefish Mountain Resort, is well-known during peak visitor seasons.

And, given the hundreds of other housing units that have existing approvals on Big Mountain and the East Lakeshore area, a further study of Wisconsin Avenue is warranted, he said.

"I'd suggest to the group that we support the city in revisiting the corridor plan," Jenson said.

Flathead Families' legal position points out the existing inadequate road infrastructure in that area needs to be addressed.

"In the event of a wildfire, this congestion could result in tragic consequences for life and property, more so if several hundred more residential units are built at the intersection of East Lakeshore Drive and Big Mountain Road," the attorneys' position paper states. "The applicant does not address this clear impediment to the proposed development whatsoever."

The developers have proposed donating 1.51 acres for a future fire station, but don't propose building a fire station. Funding for that would be left up to the city.

THE GROUP also maintains the traffic impact study is lacking. It solicited an opinion from Ahmed Al Kaisy, a civil engineering instructor at Montana State University, who issued a letter stating the traffic impact study "contains limitations that do not accurately reflect the true traffic impacts of this project." He maintained the developers' traffic study treated Big Mountain Road as a commuter route, "which it is not." Kaisy said the study should have collected morning and afternoon traffic counts on at least two or three Saturdays during the peak season months. He also noted the study was done during the Covid-19 pandemic when there was a decline in traffic volume.

Flathead Families also hired HydroSolutions to weigh in on the water-quality and drainage aspects of the proposed development.

"In general, the application lacked analysis and reports which specifically describe details regarding the development, including an environmental assessment, stormwater management plan, drainage plan, and water quality impact controls and mitigation to effectively prevent impacts to Whitefish Lake," HydroSolutions' engineers wrote. "The PUD narrative provided general descriptions regarding water and stormwater plans and lacked the details needed for completion of an effective review of the PUD application."

THE CITIZENS group further takes issue with the developers' voluntary offering of 32 deed-restricted apartments to address affordable housing concerns.

"Again, it's the details," Flathead Families points out. "Mountain Gateway would displace the existing eight units that qualify as low-rent, and in no way, shape or form does their gesture fall under or qualify as affordable housing."

As the Mountain Gateway proposal winds its way through the planning process, Flathead Families' leadership intends to continue pushing its message of responsible growth. The group's website at whitefishdevelopment.org has up-to-date information about how to become involved.

"Our goal is 100 percent awareness," Geiger said.

News editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 406-758-4421 or lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting