A subdivision was recently proposed along U.S. Highway 93 north of Lolo called Alexandra Estates. Many of you are aware of this subdivision and you sent your comments to our office or testified at the public hearing on Wednesday, Dec. 7. Some of you did both. We are grateful and proud to live in a community that so actively engages its local government, especially at defining moments in shaping its landscape.
Despite knowing it would come as a great disappointment to many of you, we voted to conditionally approve the Alexandra Estates subdivision. The decision was a difficult one in the face of such heartfelt testimony from opponents and proponents alike. With this difficult decision comes an opportunity to talk about the relationship between agricultural land and future development in Missoula County.
We have long been concerned about the ongoing loss of agricultural land in Missoula County. That loss adversely affects agricultural operations, including food production, as well as county residents' rural way of life. However, we are also cautious in our approach to considering potential methods for mitigation of agricultural land loss because many agricultural operators have their savings and livelihood invested in those lands.
The Missoula County Open Lands Citizen Advisory Committee, appointed by our board and composed largely of rural landowners, is reviewing recent local reports regarding the status of agriculture in the Missoula area. Two reports by the private sector are "Losing Ground" by the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition and "A Place to Grow" by the Missoula Organization of Realtors/Missoula Building Industry Association. We recognize and appreciate the Citizen Advisory Committee's expertise, efforts in and commitment to our rural communities and our ranching, farming and timber producing landowners. Consequently we requested that the organization advise us in four areas:
1. Evaluate and provide feedback on the two reports as well as on agricultural protection models used in other communities.
2. Provide guidance regarding what direction(s) the county should pursue in providing further protection to agricultural lands while concurrently providing agricultural operators better opportunities for success and protecting private property rights.
3. Offer guidance on prioritizing recommended citizen advisory committee approaches and strategies.
4. Offer insight on involving the public in any recommended approaches and strategies, particularly among the ranching and farming community and rural residents and landowners.
Guidance from the committee is simply the first step in developing a public policy framework and a public participation and review process.
In addition, we requested the assistance of the Land Use Clinic at the University of Montana's School of Law, under the guidance of professor and Director Michelle Bryan Mudd. The clinic is researching existing laws and potential changes to those laws that might protect and enhance the availability and production of viable and valuable agricultural lands while concurrently protecting private property rights. The clinic's reports are in process, and will be critical to the community, the open lands committee and to us in considering any comprehensive approaches to managing ranching and farming land use changes in the coming years.
Nationally and locally, proposed agricultural mitigation strategies have only proven successful if accompanied by incentives that help agricultural producers remain on, or acquire new, agricultural lands. The Missoula County Open Lands Citizen Advisory Committee is aware of the crucial relationship between mitigation and incentives and we anticipate a report on their findings and recommendations later this winter.
By recommending that we deny the Alexandra Estates subdivision application, the Planning Board and numerous commenters suggested that we implement a policy that has yet to be adopted. While the retention of large, unbroken parcels of agricultural land is strongly advocated by the food and agriculture coalition and its supporters, policies and regulations that would provide landowners with an understanding of how mitigation will occur have not been adopted by the county.
Until the County's Growth Policy and subdivision regulations are changed through a public process that gives all our residents the opportunity to weigh in on these issues, we will continue to consider applications consistent with statute, legal precedent and our adopted regulations.
Bill Carey, Jean Curtiss and Michele Landquist comprise the Missoula Board of County Commissioners.