Missoula County has lost more than 30,000 acres of farmland to development since I was a college student here 30 years ago. Montana law allows counties to mitigate for the loss of ag land in the subdivision process, but provides no details. Consequently, confusion, complication and intensity often ensue, as property developers and advocates for ag land make their cases before the Planning Board and the Board of County Commissioners.
The current process lacks predictability, adds to the cost of housing, and can consign the best soil we have to concrete. We need an ordinance detailing the design requirements for developing on high quality agriculture land. We must craft a rule, on the county level, to protect real ag land vulnerable in the near-term to development. That means focusing on where our best soil and the path of development share the same ground. This rule should be tight in scope, provide developers with both predictability and the planning tools necessary to maximize value when designing subdivisions in protection of prime soil.
We should act creatively to increase our design options, so, when necessary, we can reduce lot sizes, use community septic systems, and maintain neighborhood density patterns, in order to plan for housing while saving irreplaceable soil. The past should inform, not constrain our efforts. We can create housing, affordable and market rate, and ensure a future with a robust local food system. We need only courage, vision and a cooperative spirit in our decision makers.
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