Feeding time was over for the evening and living-room lights blinked on at farms and ranches across Missoula County a couple of weeks ago.
Downtown in City Council chambers, the heat was on at an evening hearing of the Missoula Consolidated Planning Board, which took up a proposed subdivision north of Lolo.
Developers of Alexandra Estates want to subdivide 116 acres of what once was productive hay and pasture land, a sizable chunk of prime agricultural soil that's rare and getting rarer in these parts.
Nick Kaufman of WGM Group explained why he and landowner Ken Allen felt dividing the land into 23 five-acre lots would maintain the land's agricultural potential.
"I have a particular passion of dislike for one-acre tracts," Kaufman, a hobby farm owner himself, told the board. "They're too big to mow and too small to do any type of agricultural activity."
He'd been through these things before, and Kaufman knew what was coming next. One by one, seven men and women - a healthy turnout for a planning board hearing - paraded to the podium to punch holes in the Alexandra Estates proposal.
They pointed to the alarming loss of farmland in the county, at a rate of nearly three football fields a day from 1986 to 2008. Some said better to put homes on small lots and leave more farmland. Others said best to build no houses at all.
Senior planner Tim Worley was asked to defend the Office of Planning and Grants' support of the Alexandra Estates proposal when so much prime agricultural soil was threatened.
"It's hard for us," Worley replied. "We're looking at a suite of subdivision review criteria that we have to consider in sort of a holistic fashion. We can't be cherry picking one and saying that because this criterion isn't met perfectly, we can't support the subdivision."
The planning board had other qualms with Alexandra - wildlife habitat mitigations and a questionable access plan for U.S. Highway 93. But its chief problem clearly centered on agricultural effects. The board voted unanimously to recommend denial when the subdivision goes before the Missoula County commissioners on Dec. 7.
There, the arguments are likely to be much the same. Though subdivisions of all kinds have slowed dramatically in the past several years, other proposals that affect farmland figure to follow a similar pattern: Developers try to come up with a plan to mitigate agricultural impacts, planners and policymakers try to rectify it with state laws and county policies that most agree are far too broad.
"I appreciate that you guys are stuck with what the county gives you to work with," Tim Skufka of the planning board told Worley at the hearing. "I think you came up with all you had at your disposal. Shame on the county and shame on this board for not providing other options."
"We need to have a comprehensive policy," Paul Hubbard agreed. "We need to get beyond this."
Hubbard and the Community Food Agriculture Coalition of Missoula have become increasingly visible during the housing slowdown. Their research shows that Missoula County lost the equivalent of three football fields a day in prime agricultural lands to development from 1986 to 2008.
The rate has decelerated since then, but the coalition has reviewed and commented on 30 subdivisions since early 2008 for their impact on diminishing farmlands.
The message, he said, is "pretty much the same in that farmland is precious. It's the foundation of our food system, it's what sustains working farms and ranches, and you don't get a second chance. You develop it and it's gone."
But in a county with a land base of which just 2 percent is considered prime agricultural land, what's there is precious, Hubbard and others say, especially as the importance of locally grown products gains momentum.
Only one of every five acres of that 2 percent is in parcels of 40 acres or larger, said Jim Cusker, who runs the farm near the confluence of the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers that his parents bought in 1938.
Cusker is a volunteer member of the Missoula County Open Lands Citizens' Advisory Committee. County commissioners charged the committee earlier this year with developing a comprehensive policy for conserving natural resources.
There are two ways to do that, Cusker said, "and the first is undoubtedly the most palatable."
It involves providing incentives to farmers and ranchers to give up development rights and continue to use their land for agricultural purposes, i.e., take out conservation easements.
Countywide open space bonds, passed by the voting public in 2006, have been "somewhat effective," he said. But as of January 2011, less than half of the available bond money had been used.
Many people are hesitant to participate.
"I've had this visit with a lot of landowners and they say, ‘If I decide to have this land developed, you know I could get so much more for it that
way,' " Cusker said. "So it would be great if additional mechanisms were put in place to allow landowners, if they want to sell and get out of agriculture, to be able to sell at the most lucrative price they could get."
Hence, one of two documents that a subpanel recently brought to the Open Lands Committee. The current conservation incentive draft suggests, among other avenues, permanently lowering or eliminating property taxes as long as the land placed in a conservation easement remains productive, as well as the waiving of annual maintenance fees levied by irrigation districts. County funds would be designated for the latter.
Another, longer document that is also in draft form deals with mitigation issues of development. Its purpose is "to provide clear guidance to policymakers and the public on how to effectively lessen or offset impacts" on natural resources and agricultural by land development.
When finalized, the mitigation principles and guidelines should eliminate much of the time and money it takes to put together and vet each subdivision review.
Suggested mitigations could include placing permanent buffers to shield one land use from another, and creating a ratio system for on-site and off-site mitigation that starts at 1-to-1 - the required preservation of one acre of agricultural land for each acre changed to a "non-resource" use.
Some questions remain. How, for instance, do you enforce deed restrictions in a conservation easement? And how best to assure that streamflow and infrastructure supporting wetland mitigation stay with the land placed under an easement?
The subcommittee used a document adopted by Yolo County in California in 2006 as a jumping-off place on the mitigation issue. It has undergone a number of changes, but the current draft bears similarities to one Hubbard and the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition floated to the county earlier this year.
The process was amped up this month, when a special Open Lands Committee public meeting was held in addition to the regularly scheduled one. Custer said the mitigation document may be ready for a committee vote at the next meeting on Dec. 15. The incentive document would then be taken up at the Jan. 19 meeting.
"The discussion has been very, very thorough," Cusker said. "Everyone is extremely comfortable voicing thoughts and opinions. I think it was the right group for the commissioners to ask. These are folks who live on the land and this will affect them tremendously."
There'll be plenty to consider, said Jean Curtiss, who as a county commissioner nearing the end of her second six-year term has ruled on both swarms and trickles of subdivision proposals. "It's easy to say we should save ag, but how we do it is not as easy."
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.