Dozens turn out to discuss proposed Libby business zoning

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Libby City Council member Kristin Smith, right of center, presents on proposed business zoning revisions at the Sept. 17 meeting. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

About 70 people linked with Libby businesses attended the Sept. 17 Libby City Council meeting to weigh in on proposed zoning revisions that include creating a downtown business district.

The crowd was the largest in recent memory, with about 15 people taking turns at the podium. Some sought clarification or made suggestions, while a few felt that use restrictions proposed for downtown were a slap in the face to long-standing businesses.

Council member Kristin Smith gave a slide presentation on the proposed revisions, which she said the Planning Board worked on from October 2013 to September 2014 before entering a period of inactivity that lasted until it resumed the effort in April 2017.

Noting that existing zoning districts date back to 1974, she said the proposed updates follow the spirit of the downtown revitalization plan the city adopted in 2005 and the growth policy it adopted in 2010.

The revitalization plan in part calls for developing a pedestrian friendly downtown anchored by shopping and dining attractions and containing “an appropriate mix of goods and services.”

The growth policy, in addition to establishing a vision for Libby that includes economic goals, also called for the review of “existing zoning code to determine their efficacy at meeting the goals and needs of Libby.”

The Planning Board is proposing a Downtown Business District, distinct from the Highway Commercial District, to support the city’s vision of “a viable cultural, retail, governmental and financial center of the community,” according to the proposed code.

In addition, the Planning Board is proposing to use the city’s existing Business Residential District as a transition zone between downtown and the highway corridor.

The proposals also seek to define the Downtown Business District as Mineral Avenue and California Avenue only, add parking standards to the Highway Commercial District, and “improve opportunities for mixed use and auto-oriented commercial development in appropriate locations, among other items.

The Sept. 17 meeting was not the first time Smith presented the proposed revisions — she gave the same presentation during a poorly attended open house before the City Council’s July 23 meeting. Yet many who attended the Sept. 17 meeting said they had learned about them only a few days before when Council member Rob Dufficy delivered copies to various people.

Tom Gilmore of Northwest Motorsports at 400 California Ave. was one of the first people to speak following Smith’s presentation. Noting that his business falls under more than one of the proposed use restrictions, he likened it to being “in the bad guy list” and said that “it hurts [and] makes me feel unappreciated.”

In response, Smith said that the proposed revisions, including the use restrictions, would only apply to new construction or proposed new uses for existing properties and services — an explanation she would repeat a few more times before the night was done.

Gilmore also said that the draft “doesn’t go far enough” to protect him, his business or his employees, and he would like it to address expansion, transfer of ownership and other items “that might be open to interpretation.”

Ryan Andreessen of Timberline Auto Center mirrored Gilmore’s concerns, saying he was “offended” that his family’s 30-year-old business would be deemed in violation of use restrictions and wondering what would happen if they wanted to sell the business.

“I think input [from business owners] would have been a benefit,” he said before asking that any use restrictions pertaining to auto sales or services be removed from the draft proposal.

No one who addressed the City Council opposed the need for zoning. Gilmore said he had “no problem with most zoning,” and Ted Werner called it “a benefit if properly handled and executed.”

Werner proposed that a subsequent draft have more use inclusions rather than exclusions, a point later repeated by Bruce Weatherby of Sherpa Trailers.

During public comment, Mayor Brent Teske noted that a “common thread” was the need for clarification and specificity on numerous items.

After public comment ended, Smith said it was “very refreshing to have new things to evaluate” and she was “excited to address the comments.”

The other council members spoke as well, thanking people for input and acknowledging that the proposals need work.

In closing the discussion, Teske noted that the public’s input that night was just the start of the revision process and that there would be more opportunity for input.

“This is how it’s supposed to work,” he said.

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