Montana’s heritage is rooted in working farms and ranches, and so is our future. Agriculture is woven into the fabric of our economy, culture and landscape. Of course, agriculture also provides the food we all need to survive.
Given agriculture’s importance, it is downright shocking that Senate Bill 147 is making its way through the Montana Legislature. If passed, this bill will erode agriculture’s long-term viability, and it will take away local control over land-use decisions. Here’s why this bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Edward Buttrey of Great Falls, is so dangerous.
Under current law, when a developer proposes a subdivision, local governments must look at how it might impact things like taxation, the natural environment and public safety. Then, if impacts are documented, they have to be addressed before the development occurs. The impact that a subdivision might have on agriculture is one of those criteria that must be considered.
SB147 would change that by deleting agriculture from the review process. Instead, subdivisions would only be reviewed for their impact on “adjacent agricultural operations.” In other words, only the impact on neighbors would be considered. The larger context of agriculture would never even be looked at, much less addressed. That’s a drastic difference.
Contrary to claims made by the Realtors and builders who are backing SB147, it flies in the face of the original intent of the state’s subdivision law. In 1975, the crafters of the law clearly wanted to ensure that agricultural land was not lost to unchecked development. The hearing minutes from that time express the sponsor’s alarm over the changes he had seen near his home in Gallatin County, where, he said, “one has to drive but a short distance to see some of the best agricultural land covered by houses and subdivisions.” The bill’s sponsor was motivated by what he called “the tragic intrusion on the agriculture land base of Montana.”
With that foresight decades ago, the state created a process by which local governments would address the public interest, but also retain landowners’ rights to sell and develop their land. Local elected officials are the closest to the people they represent. But they are not allowed to act in ways that are arbitrary. As a result, there is great potential for creative solutions that preserve both private property rights and agricultural land for the common good.
One example of successful collaboration is Blue Heron Estates in the Grass Valley outside of Missoula. The development was proposed on 75 acres of prime agricultural soil with good access to an irrigation ditch. The developer originally wanted to put 15 five-acre lots across the entire area. But he was willing to work with citizen groups concerned about the loss of such fertile ground. In the end, they came up with a design that pleased everyone. The developer got the 15 lots he wanted, and 30 acres of farmland and 21 acres of critical habitat were protected.
This kind of creativity and meaningful dialogue won’t be possible if SB147 passes. Cities and counties will not even be able to consider the broader impacts development might have on agriculture. This is short-sighted thinking.
Communities need to be able to plan for our agricultural future. Farmland is attractive for development because it is usually flat, well drained and often located near cities and towns. But fertile soils are rare, and quality farmland is irreplaceable. Once it is gone, it’s gone for good.
SB147 disregards the long-term benefits agriculture provides our economy and our communities. Working farms and ranches reflect Montanans’ deep connection to the land and our shared sense of place. Well-managed agricultural lands preserve water quality and provide wildlife habitat. Agriculture remains Montana’s number one industry. Also, many farmers and ranchers are seizing new economic opportunities from the growing consumer demand for local and regional foods. Whatever the future may bring, we will need and want working farms and ranches.
To eat is to engage in agriculture. We all have a stake in the outcome of this debate, and we owe it to future generations to oppose SB147. Don’t let the Montana Legislature delete agriculture. Please speak up for farms and urge your representative to vote no on SB147.
Neva Hassanein of Missoula specializes in the study of contemporary food and agriculture systems.