By Moira Blazi
The Libby city council presented the preliminary draft of a comprehensive downtown business district rezoning plan for public review and input last Monday, Sept. 17, at Libby city hall. The room was packed for the meeting with interested citizens, many of them business owners.
Before the plan was presented, the council gave the okay to Lynette Haines for a march in support of domestic violence victims organized by Lincoln County Domestic Violence Support group. The event will be held on Friday, October 5.
Councilwoman Kristin Smith began with a short visual presentation outlining why the city has begun the process of reviewing all ordinances for relevancy and outdated language. She told the group that the existing zoning ordinances were put in place in 1974, and that since then, there have been many changes, both to the economy of Libby and to the civic vision for the downtown area. Smith reminded the group of the 2005 downtown revitalization project, and its goals of creating an attractive cultural center in downtown Libby which included a mix of services while protecting the unique character of Libby. She recounted an update of the comprehensive plan in 2010, and the creation of the county planning board in 2013.
Many Libby business owners stepped up to the microphone to express their thoughts.
Jacklyn Gambell, of TVA located at 301 Mineral, expressed concerns about business owners not having enough time to rebuild the same business in the same location in the event of fire or other destruction of the building. Smith replied that the planning board and the city council had not set any time frame for unrestricted rebuilding and was considering six months to one year.
Tom Gilmore, owner of Northwest Motor Sports and Ace Hardware then stepped up to say that he did not think the proposal went far enough to protect his business interests. He was concerned about potential problems with expansion of his business and the ability to hand it down to his heirs. He added that he would love to improve the aesthetic of the downtown area, but that he didn’t appreciate being named on “the bad guy list. “It hurts,” he told the council. Mayor Teske reminded Gilmore that this was just the first draft, and Smith added, “It’s nothing personal.”
Ryan Andreessen, of Timberline Auto, told the council that he agreed that the appearance of Mineral Ave. needed to be improved, but that he was concerned that his business was listed as ‘prohibited.’ He was concerned with his ability to sell his business later down the road and wanted to see the provision concerning auto dealerships eliminated from the document.
Next up, speaking for the VFW, was Rod Beall. Beall expressed concerns about the VFW not being able to expand, and wondered who was on the planning board, remarking, “I didn’t know if all the planning board members came from Whitefish.” Mayor Teske responded that the board was comprised of several local business owners.
Tim Whalen came to the microphone representing Ortho Rehab, whose office is not in the core downtown area, but in the business district on Hwy 2. He felt that there needed to be a better definition of health care facilities, and clarification on what regulations would apply to them.
Vince Backen of the Libby Gym asked the council if there had been a fiscal impact study done and warned them of future lawsuits saying, “We know it (lawsuits) will happen.”
Business owner, Ted Werner wondered about a cap on possible fees, telling the council, “It is financially impossible to build a new building and have a positive financial return.”
City council meeting regular, DC Orr, then stepped up to remind the board of their obligation to transparency and quipped, “..the board went off on their own, took Whitefish’s vision and put Libby’s name on it.” Mayor Teske reminded Orr that this preliminary proposal was only a recommendation. Orr continued, “The only reason there are this many people here tonight is because councilman Dufficy went around town handing out flyers.”
New business owner, Ted Montgomery, of Camp Creek Coffee Roasters wondered how personal homes and residential rentals within the business district would be affected. He asked for more clarification on what would happen with vacant lots, asking, “If someone wanted to put up a storage shed, is somebody going to say hey, that is a new construction?” Montgomery said that he is not against the ordinance, but wondered, “Why do we need to change everything when we are not upholding what we already have?” In reply, Smith pointed out that the existing ordinance does not allow residential use in certain areas of downtown, but that it is not being enforced.
After public comments, the council members addressed a few points, with councilman Zimmerman saying, “We just don’t see this many people at meetings anymore, and there could be more transparency.”
Smith commented, “Making legislation is tedious and time consuming, it is refreshing to have new comments to address.” She reiterated that the new ordinance would only apply to new businesses and new construction.
The city council will now have an opportunity to review/edit the proposal and according to Smith’s presentation, comments will be accepted up until a decision is made.
The council then wrapped up a few items of unfinished business, approving anti-loitering, and junk removal ordinances.
The next meeting will be held Oct. 1 at 7 p.m.