Montana’s wide-open spaces have been slowly but surely fenced off for residential housing at an alarming rate over the last quarter-century, gobbling up a combined area larger than all of Glacier National Park.
But the good news is developers and land-use planners can take advantage of younger buyers’ appetite for more centrally located, higher density options to stem the losses.
Between 1990 and 2016, 1.3 million acres of undeveloped land in Montana were converted to housing.
That’s a huge number for the 44th-least populated state with only about a million residents. The reason is because nearly half of the roughly 113,000 homes built in that time period were constructed on lots of more than 10 acres. In Missoula County, 32,320 acres of undeveloped land and open space have been lost to housing since 1990, with 30 percent built on lots more than 10 acres and almost half outside the city limits.
That’s according to a nonprofit research organization called Headwaters Economics, which recently released a detailed report on home construction in every county over the last century.
Associate director Patricia Gude said the report shows that the tendency to build on large residential lots — sometimes as large as 40 acres — is quickly changing Montana’s culture, economy and natural resources.
“Without careful planning for our future, conversion of undeveloped land to residential housing will be detrimental to Montana’s water quality, wildlife, and heritage of open space,” she said.
A recent survey of nearly 200 technology and manufacturing companies conducted by the University of Montana found that many business owners say the state’s outdoor recreation opportunities are a major reason why they’ve been able to attract and retain enough skilled workers to grow nine times faster than the statewide economy.
A separate study by UM in 2017 found that Montana’s outdoor recreation and scenery were the main reason more than 12 million tourists visit the state every year, creating more than 50,000 jobs and spending an estimated $3.5 billion annually.
“There are certainly implications for our natural resources that we enjoy,” said Gude of her findings. “Whether it’s clean water or wildlife viewing or hunting, our way of life in Montana tends to be closely tied to the natural resources and all of those are impacted by the way we develop the land.”
The number of single-family homes in Montana grew by 50 percent between 1990 and 2016, from roughly 224,000 to 337,000. In Missoula County, 11,678 homes were built in that time.
In 2002, 43 percent of homes here were built on lots of more than 10 acres, but that has steadily declined to 16 percent in 2016. Duce said her research shows that Montana’s two biggest housing booms were in the 1970s and 1990s. Statewide, the number of homes built on large lots since 1970 has stayed roughly steady at 60 percent.
Gude said it was striking for her to contrast the maps of housing development in the 1970s compared to today.
“It shows just how extensive the conversion of open space to housing is,” she said. “It wasn’t surprising to me the number of acres that we’re talking about, but I think it did remind me how important it is to take this opportunity now to decide the fate of our heritage and wide-open lands. It’s something that most of us love about Montana.”
She said the good news is that Montana can learn what not to do from more populated states.
“We’re just earlier in our population growth than most other places in the United States,” she said. “We have a lot of undeveloped land currently, so I would be willing to bet our situation is unique, because Montana is unique. But I actually think there’s a lot of good news in the information we’ve put out.
"To me, it indicates an opportunity. We still have a lot of open space left. We have a lot of culture in Montana and we’re still connected to and value our natural resources. This data can help us create a vision for what we want this place to look like in 100 years.”
John Herring is the immediate past president of the Montana Association of Realtors and the owner of the RE/MAX offices in Missoula and Hamilton. He’s been in the real estate business in western Montana for 29 years, and he said more and more clients are asking for property closer to amenities in the urban centers.
“Here in Missoula and in the Bitterroot Valley and up toward Ronan as well, there has been a marked increase in people who would rather move into town on smaller lots,” he explained. “A lot of that is driven by the pricing sometimes, but even people that I know can afford larger lots, where prices range from $750,000 to even $1 million, they are still looking for less land and less work.”
Herring said over the years, he’s seen more couples where both are working so one spouse doesn’t have time to take care of the “mini-ranch” setup.
“Back in the day I would sell a 5-acre 4-H type of farm, and now those are more difficult to sell, in my opinion, because people want to be closer to the city,” he said. “In my close to 30 years in the business, kids used to be in the back seat counting cows. Now they’re on their iPads. There seems to be less interest in the 4-H thing.
"People in eastern Montana would laugh, but here people call 5 to 20 acres a ranch. Those have been more difficult to sell. People want to be closer to town. They want shorter commute times, less work to do in the yard and would rather be out at Out to Lunch or the Farmers Market on the weekend.”
Herring said he thinks the same trend is happening in the Kalispell area. He also said many older people who want to sell their larger lots are having a harder time finding buyers.
“There’s more happening closer in on small lots,” he said. “A lot of that is driven by price. You can afford more with a smaller lot. For big lots, the time on the market is lengthier and sellers are not able to push the price like they could have years ago, relative to the market then versus now.”
At one time, Herring said, Ravalli County was one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation because of retirees moving in who wanted larger lots.
“Those retirees are now wanting to be close in to more amenities,” he said. “I have one couple looking now who pretty much had their choice of where they wanted to be. They picked Missoula because of the amenities. She mentioned the (Missoula Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) program, the string orchestra and things like that, versus wanting to be on 5 acres in Corvallis. That might be one reason why the Bitterroot market has been slower to recover from the recession than Missoula, but it’s now starting to catch up.”
Rich Mayo, the 2018 president of the Montana Association of Realtors, said he’s also noticed a trend of more clients looking for smaller, denser lots closer to city centers.
“In Bozeman, and I don’t have specific numbers, but I would venture to say maybe 10 percent or less are looking for a larger acreage than 5 acres,” he said. “I go to national meetings to talk about national trends, and a lot of people I talk to, with their communities as well, there is a larger interest especially with millennials and younger buyers that want to be more centrally-located and less on the fringes.”
A shortage of housing that's driving up prices in Montana's urban centers is putting development pressure on remaining open space, but Gude said Montana can preserve land and build enough housing with careful planning.
"Fortunately, vast areas of undeveloped land remain and Montanans can contain the negative impacts of growth through careful discussion, coordination, and planning," she said.