Columbia Falls behind 

Whitefish plans to go it alone

Perhaps Whitefish City Councilman Tom Muri summed it up best.

“What if we have this little Shangri-la called Whitefish, but we get outside of the city and it looks like crap?”

The Daily Inter Lake reported Muri’s comment after he heard a presentation by Whitefish’s city manager on reasons to pull out of the Tri-city Planning Office and create a planning office solely for Whitefish.

Since July of 2001, when Flathead County broke away from the regional planning board that included all its cities, Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls have shared the cost of planning through the Tri-city office. But last November, Whitefish City Council members agreed that, with just one part-time planner for the city, they were only reacting to rapid growth, rather than planning for it. The stand-alone Whitefish Planning Office they approved consists of three full-time planners and a part-time clerk. Whitefish’s raising of the drawbridge, which went into effect June 30, effectively killed Tri-city, and forced Kalispell and Columbia Falls to go it alone on planning, too. Kalispell appears to be handling the transition well—the city changed the name on the outside of the Tri-City office and retained most of their original staff, including director Tom Jentz, for the Kalispell City Planning Office. Columbia Falls hasn’t fared quite as well.

For its new planning office, Whitefish produced a budget of $245,337. Kalispell managed to find $439,000. In contrast, Columbia Falls has scrounged only $54,000 for its planning office. That amount will buy one part-time clerk and allow the city to hire a part-time planning consultant as needed.

Having just half a planner will keep Columbia Falls about where it was under Tri-city Planning, according to Sybil Noss, the city’s finance director. What the city will really be losing, she says, is the combined knowledge and resources of five planners working in one office.

“It’s the best we can do for now,” Noss said.

Though not as quickly as its wealthier neighbors, Columbia Falls continues to grow. And with the 2004 median price for a home in Whitefish at $265,000 and $169,000 in Kalispell, Columbia Falls’ $148,000 median is looking good to a lot of folks who work in the nearby cities.

Columbia Falls is especially attractive to the Whitefish workforce. In order to afford the median Whitefish home, workers would have to make $75,000. But according to a needs assessment done by the Whitefish Housing Authority, teachers there make an average annual salary of $26,174, firefighters $30,222, and police officers $31,741. At least a third of Whitefish teachers live outside of the district. WHA director Sue-Ann Grogan said it’s safe to say that people working in Whitefish often go to Columbia Falls when they go house shopping. As housing prices in Whitefish continue to rise, it’s likely its workers and public servants will continue to buy elsewhere and commute, making Whitefish a Shangri-la with work visas.

The differences between Shangri-la and Columbia Falls go far beyond planning. This February, Whitefish finished construction on The Wave, a $7 million aquatic center. Nearly all the money for the project came from local donations. More than $1 million has already been donated to the new Whitefish Central School Auditorium project. Residents have also managed to toss in a couple hundred thousand for a skatepark this year, and the city is working on several bike paths.

Columbia Falls can afford no such perks for the tax base. And so, as Whitefish children study theater and music in a state-of-the-art auditorium, exercise in a top-notch aquatic center and recreate in their new skatepark, Columbia Falls residents and their progeny commute back down the road to look on with envy.

Should Whitefish care?

Some think so. Muri and other members of the Whitefish Council had their doubts about breaking away from their neighbors somewhat assuaged when the idea of a countywide, long-range planning task force was put forth. The task force is a voluntary board of valley residents, and the mayor, city manager and city planner from Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls. The task force, created by Flathead County commissioners, is charged, in part, with making recommendations on how the county should grow over the next 20 to 30 years. According to task force president Jerry Nix, neither the county nor Columbia Falls has the money to put resources toward future planning. The task force will help them pool their intellectual resources and at least partially reconnect the three cities and Flathead County.

That’s important to Nix because, he said, while valley residents may live in different cities, most of them drive, work and recreate all over the area.

“We’re all residents of the valley,” he said.

But, while the task force pools intellectual resources, it will not, Nix noted, help Columbia Falls with fiscal problems that keep it from having more than an on-call planner.

As the task force tries to keep the cities connected, Whitefish also began work on the Whitefish Housing Authority’s affordable housing program last year, which gives loans to bridge the gap between what banks are willing to lend people getting by at under 80 percent of the average area income and the cost of a home. In order to get the program moving, the Whitefish City Council voted to create an incentive program for developers, offering them density bonuses in exchange for a percentage of homes to be sold at prices that make the WHA’s program feasible. The program may help the employees of Shangri-la buy their own little piece of heaven.

Of course, none of that changes the fact that Columbia Falls only has half a planner. But with that, Noss says, “We’ll give it our best shot.”

ppeters@missoulanews.com

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