Shifting from historical policy, Whitefish is considering the possibility of extending city services south of Montana 40.
The city is in the midst of an update to its extension of services plan and City Council earlier this month held a work session to look at a draft of an update to the plan. State law requires cities to provide a plan showing how they will provide services to areas that may one day be annexed. The plan should include a five-year urban growth boundary based on the availability of water, sewer, storm drainage, solid waste disposal, streets, and fire and police protection.
Past city councils have made policy statements against extending city services on U.S. Highway 93 south of the Montana 40 junction. However, proposed language in the draft plan notes that while the extension was previously opposed, “Council is now amenable to extending services, at a maximum, to Blanchard Lake Road concurrent with annexation.”
Planning Director Dave Taylor said the plan sets out areas where the city feels it can effectively provide services and where are the natural boundaries that development isn’t likely to occur.
“At the end of the day it’s a Council policy decision about whether it’s appropriate to extend services south of 40,” he said. “If we do allow them to be annexed we can somewhat control how that develops.”
Taylor said properties near the Highway 93 and Montana 40 junction may request to be annexed to obtain city services such as sewer, particularly if owners are looking to create commercial development that would not be feasible with a private septic tank. If properties were annexed, he said, they would have to go through city review — such as through a conditional use permit or the Architectural Review Committee for the construction of commercial buildings — to be developed.
“It does allow us to maintain more control,” he said. “It’s just has always been a policy that nothing extends out to past 40, and extension of services plan is how we show that policy.”
Changes to the extension of services plan still have to go before the Planning Board for review and final adoption by City Council would follow.
The proposed change comes following the Flathead County Commissioners decision this fall to adopt the corridor plan and overlay zone for properties south of Whitefish on Highway 93. The move rezoned about 490 acres along the highway and placed an overlay zone on 1.5 miles of the highway corridor south of the city. The change has been noted as having the potential to open the gateway for more commercial development along the corridor.
Replying to a question from Council, Taylor said some of the properties south of Montana 40 would likely have to connect to city services to expand because of high groundwater.
For the city’s extension of services plan, it does note that prior to development, the city would need additional water storage to help equalize pressures and to provide adequate fire flow capacity. The city has been examining establishing a new water tank on the south end of Whitefish and the plan says that tank is expected to be in place within the next five years.
Public Works Director Craig Workman noted that the tank would be primarily for fire service storage and that the fire district provides protection in that area already, but water is currently trucked in by tanks.
“The intention of the water tank isn’t to serve that area south of highway 40, it’s intention is to serve the area that is already within city limits north of 40, but that is still a long distance away from our main storage,” Workman said.
“The connotation has always been that as soon as we extend the water main to south of 40 that there would be the ability to tie into that,” he added. “If we do a water main extension that would require us to put in fire hydrants, but it wouldn’t necessarily allow customers to tie into the main.”
During public comment, Rhonda Fitzgerald raised concerns that shifting from historical policy to end city limits and services at Montana 40 would change the character of the city. She suggested that the city should encourage expansion of the city to the east and west.
“I know the community at-large has always been concerned about sprawl and especially strip sprawl,” she said. “People have taken a great deal of comfort in the fact that Council has always said not south of [Montana] 40. This is alarming and growth to the east is much more palatable to this community.”
Mayor John Muhlfeld said the city needs “to guide growth into our corridor and this is the way to do that” referring to proposed changes to the extension of services plan.
Other areas that are proposed to be added to the city’s urban growth boundary map as part of extension of services plan, includes areas on Big Mountain that could be annexed and some that are already served by city sewer service, an area extending west and north of East Lakeshore Drive, a chunk of land both north and south of Reservoir Road and a few other smaller infill areas in the city.
“These are not enormous land swallowing changes,” Workman said. “Most of these areas are with having infill in-mind.”
In concert with the update to the extension of services plan, planning staff is suggesting the city review whether it should charge an application fee for annexation, if it needs a standalone annexation policy and should its annexation guidelines include language that discourages landowners who construct a structure in the county with the intent of immediately requesting annexation or services from the city.
Long Range Planner Hilary Lindh said most cities in Montana are charging fees along with their applications for annexation and the planning department is looking for Council direction on the matter. Helena charges $300 for an application, Bozeman charges a base fee of $1,580 and Billings charges $1,755 for an application and review fee.
“I know that we don’t charge any fees,” she said. “But we also don’t want to discourage people from annexation.”
City Manager Adam Hammatt said an application for annexation can take a significant amount of staff time spread across multiple departments. He noted that the fee examples didn’t seem out of line with the cost for processing an application, but also some cities don’t charge for annexations because they look at the value that comes from taxes on the property.
Muhlfeld said the city should examine what the cost for it is to process annexation applications.
“Ultimately if we don’t impose some fee — not a fee that discourages annexation — but if we don’t impose a reasonable fee than we’re shouldering that burden on our tax payers,” he said. “It shouldn’t disincentivize those from wanting to come into the city.”
A part of the city’s policy on extending services to undeveloped areas as part of the plan, includes a requirement that the property owner shall ensure all structures are constructed in accordance to the city’s building code and provide proper inspections by the city.
City staff is asking Council to determine whether disincentives should be included in the annexation policy to discourage landowners from constructing a structure and then seeking annexation or services. That could mean including text that points to county regulations that notes that any dwelling not equipped with adequate facilitates for sewer is a violation of county regulations. Or the city could implement an extra fee or fine to petitioners with existing structures that are dry plumbed and/or have never been connected to a septic system before.
Councilor Frank Sweeney said he’d like to ensure that those looking to annex are provided with an incentive to do so sooner rather than wait until after a structure is built and then apply to join the city.
“For people that know they want to annex in, I don’t want to provide economic incentive not to,” he said. “If they come in costs are going to be the same and so there’s no economic advantage to avoiding our system.”
Taylor pointed out that some economic disincentive could be possible, but the city also wouldn’t want to discourage those wanting to switch from a failing septic tank, particularly along Whitefish Lake, to city services.
Hammatt suggested the city could implement an annexation fee that is higher for those buildings that are constructed within the last two years.
“That could identify those that appear to be building just so they can annex,” Hammatt. “You want a proper incentive to annex, but you also don’t want them to go around the regulations and then annex.”
Council asked city staff to return with example policies of disincentives that could become part of the annexation policy.
During public comment, Mayre Flowers urged the city to create a standalone annexation policy that would work together with the extension of services plan.
The city does plan to examine its annexation policy as part of work by the Strategic Housing Steering Committee.
Also concerning the future of Highway 93, the city is looking at beginning the process to create a corridor plan for the area. Planning staff outlines a draft timeline for a corridor plan that includes creating a steering committee for the plan this spring, developing policies and the plan during the summer, having a review draft of the plan completed in the fall and a final draft could go before the Planning Board in February 2019.
Taylor said the plan will require coordinating with the Montana Department of Transportation. While the boundary is still to be determined, he noted, that the plan would include areas impacted by Highway 93 and would likely extend south to Blanchard Lake Road.
“Our plan is to get the committee formed in early February so we can get moving,” Taylor said. “Then start with public outreach and get the ball rolling. It’s going to be a big, complicated plan.”
A few landowners told Council they would rather see a neighborhood plan created for the area. Some seemed to be concerned about a proposed neighborhood plan that has been submitted to the city for a 70-acre swath of property west of Highway 93 sandwiched between Park Knoll Lane and JP Road.
During public comment, Cheryl Watkins said there are concerns about potential development impacting homeowners in the area including wetlands west of 93.
“We are not treating this lightly,” she said.
Taylor said a corridor plan makes more sense for the area and is called for that area by the city’s growth policy. The plan could look some at the impacts to the neighborhood, but it would mostly focused on transportation and land use.
“Corridor plans are about planning for transportation and land use and how adjacent areas will be impacted,” he said. “A neighborhood plan is a standalone that looks at that neighborhood’s own issues, but that doesn’t look at how it will impact other neighborhoods.”