How a land-use fight in Whitefish affects people’s power to put issues on the ballot

The Whitefish “Doughnut” is the two-mile wide swath of land encircling the city of Whitefish. People who live there fall under planning rules for the city, but they do not vote in city elections.

The city has had planning and zoning authority over the area, but Flathead County has been working to regain that authority. An agreement reached between the two entities in 2010 was rejected by Whitefish voters in 2011 through a citizen initiated referendum.

Thursday February 28th the case goes before Flathead District Court Judge David Ortley for summary judgment.

The city of Whitefish contends voters rejected the 2010 agreement, which was an amendment to the previous interlocal agreement of 2005, and the law of the land reverts back to the 2005 agreement.

Flathead County contends the 2005 agreement no longer exists, and would like to take steps to govern the “Doughnut” area for land use. It also contends the 2010 agreement that settled a lawsuit is an administrative function of local government. Citizen initiated referendums can only be used for legislative functions.

The case before the Flathead District Court has broader statewide implications because of this question of administrative/legislative functions. It will help define what issues voters can put on the ballot.


In the late 1960’s the city and county created the Whitefish City-county Planning Board covering the Doughnut area. The agreement has been amended over the years with a 2005 agreement granting more control over planning to Whitefish. Things started to heat up in the early 2000’s as building boomed and both the city and the county handled an onslaught of building, planning, and development requests.

In 2008 Whitefish adopted the Critical Areas Ordinance which calls for setbacks from water bodies, and sets standards about the steepness of slope that can be built on, and regulations about storm water, and other water quality standards. The Ordinance includes the Doughnut area, and has drawn fire. Flathead County Commissioners went to withdraw from the 2005 agreement. However, it contained no termination clause, so withdrawal had to be mutually agreed upon, and the city sued.  To settle the lawsuit both entities sat down together and came up with an amended agreement signed in 2010.

The 2010 agreement settled the lawsuit. It also contained an “out” for either the city or the county if they gave one year notice.

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