Moratorium mayhem in Whitefish 

With a state-mandated Oct. 1, 2006, deadline for new growth policies looming, Whitefish is considering possibly the most controversial time-crunch solution available: a moratorium.

Already hysteria has ensued. The city’s planning director, Bob Horne, says that since the Whitefish Pilot ran a story under the headline “Construction Moratorium,” he’s been receiving angry phone calls and visits from people under the impression that a moratorium on all construction is planned.

What’s actually being considered is a moratorium on major subdivisions involving six or more lots. These, he says, and the multiple public hearings they require, eat up major amounts of staff time.

And time is of the essence. Normally, Horne says, it takes two years to write a growth policy. Whitefish has less than a year to finish one. But Horne thinks that with a moratorium in place the plan could be wrapped up close to the Oct. 1 deadline.

If it isn’t, Whitefish will be unable to make any major zoning changes or changes to subdivision regulations until the policy is complete, per state law.

Whitefish City Council is set to discuss the moratorium at its Jan. 3 meeting, and Horne says a decision could be made as early as the council’s Jan. 17 meeting.

There are, of course, potential problems with a moratorium.

Horne says lawsuits by developers are one possibility.

“You can be challenged on pretty much anything you do,” he says.

To that end, he says, the best the city can do is to have city staff write the ordinance as carefully as possible.

Also, according to Horne, property values typically increase when a moratorium goes into effect, and he says he wouldn’t be surprised to see that happen in Whitefish. That could exacerbate the city’s affordable-housing problems. But, Horne says, such property value increases are caused by people’s perceptions, rather than an actual decrease in available housing supply.

Right now, Whitefish has 800 housing units worth of approved subdivisions in the pipeline. Considering that minor subdivisions could still be approved under the proposed moratorium, and that only 80 units were built in Whitefish last year, Horne says Whitefish theoretically has an 80-year construction inventory.

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