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Concerns about agricultural land, how smaller subdivisions are handled and how Missoula's streets are decided surfaced Wednesday as the Missoula County Commissioners continued to rewrite subdivision regulations for the county.

Regulations should clearly define what "agriculture" is, to help guide how subdivisions are reviewed, said Jim Cusker, speaking as a member of the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition.

State law requires that county commissioners and other bodies weigh "adverse impact on agriculture" when studying proposed subdivisions, but there are no guidelines for defining what agricultural land is, he said.

Without clear definitions, "we have no objective way of knowing how much agricultural land we are losing" and no way to sharpen planning tools to avoid or mitigate the loss, if that is desireable, the food and agriculture coalition said in its letter to the commissioners.

"We depend on the land to grow food," said another speaker, Paul Hubbard, who also urged commissioners to improve regulations to weigh the impact on agricultural land.

An inventory of existing agricultural land is a starting spot, Cusker and Hubbard agreed.

Agricultural land offers "something beyond the immediate, tangible marketability of vegetables," said Missoula resident and vineyard owner Andy Sponseller. Land that is planted or farmed or hayed - even if the lot is small - adds value to neighborhoods via open space and scenic beauty, he said.

Knowing that value is important for land planners and elected officials who decide how communities grow, he said.

Sponseller also urged the commissioners to consider transportation questions as they tweak subdivision rules and regulations.

"The regulations should provide connectivity (of roads)," he said. "We have whole subdivisions that are isolated" because roads and streets don't connect.

Sponseller said he also supports publicly owned streets and roads, rather than private roads, which can break up clear public access for bikers, pedestrians, joggers and others.

"Make it so all subdivisions have public streets and are transit-friendly," he said.

Conflicting views came from others at Wednesday's public hearing. Connecting streets make sense in bigger subdivisions, but less so in smaller ones, said Missoula resident Ken Jenkins.

"There is a great benefit to the public to have quiet subdivisions that don't have major streets going through them," he said. "I don't think we want to have something in the regulations that requires connectivity."

Myra Shults, a land-use lawyer in Missoula, offered section-by-section improvements for the regulations, suggesting different wording and places to include new standards.

Large subdivisions get attention, but people are interested in smaller ones, too - and the laws should be carefully worded to make sure small subdivisions are given proper public notice and public hearings, she said.

"I'm concerned about the (public) notice and the opportunity to be heard," she said.

Commissioners plan to adopt the regulations during a meeting Oct. 2 to meet state deadlines.

Reporter Mea Andrews can be reached at 523-5246 or at mandrews@missoulian.com

Next up

The Missoula County Commissioners will meet to adopt a proposed rewrite of county subdivision regulations at 1:30 p.m. Oct. 2 in Room 204 of the Missoula County Courthouse.

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