In a sign of northwestern Montana’s increasing wealth, and the sense of privilege that wealth brings, the Whitefish City Council voted in January to endorse a Montana Senate bill, sponsored by Whitefish Democrat Sen. Dan Weinberg, that increases the fine for violating Montana’s lakeshore regulations from a maximum of $500 to a maximum of $5,000.
According to John Muhlfeld, a city councilman who has served on the Whitefish Lake and Lakeshore Protection Committee for nine years, a perception has developed among some of the increasingly wealthy homeowners on Whitefish Lake that the fines are just part of the cost of improving their lots.
Whitefish City Planner Bob Horne agrees: “People aren’t deterred by the fines anymore.”
Furthermore, Muhlfeld says, “You have people paying 2 to 4 million for a property. Along with that price comes the expectation that you can do whatever you want on it.”
The protection zone on Whitefish Lake extends 20 feet beyond the high-water mark. This zone, Muhlfeld says, acts as a buffer between the steep slopes surrounding the lake and its water, already suffering heavy nitrate pollution, which is only exacerbated by erosion. The protection committee issues permits for substantial alterations to the landscape in this zone.
In 2006, Whitefish recorded 16 violations of lakeshore protection regulations. In 14 of those cases, the city asked only that property owners come into compliance, because, Horne says, the cost of pursuing the fines in court is greater than the fine amount.
One of the most flagrant violations occurred in March 2005, when about 20 trees were cut down within the protection zone on property owned by Michael Goguen, whose California investment firm helped finance Google and Yahoo! Goguen was fined a total of $4,600, a tiny fraction of the cost of his lakefront property, on which he’s building a residence at an estimated cost of $30 million.
In 2006, the city saw beaches extended and docks, buildings, sidewalks, stairs and patios all built within the protection zone in violation of lakeshore regulations, sometimes without any permits at all.
Asked if even $5,000 would be enough to deter such behavior, Muhlfeld said, “You’d hope so. That’s a tenfold increase.”