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Like most Montanans, I want to see a strong legacy of farming and ranching in this state. That's why I went to Helena in February to testify against House Bill 542, a bill that would allow subdivisions to run wild through farming and ranching communities, without regard to the permanent loss of agricultural land or the erosion of a community's agricultural integrity. Still, the House narrowly passed HB542, and the bill will now be heard in the Senate Local Government Committee on Monday.

Since the bill's sponsor, Rep. John Esp, R-Big Timber, says the motivation behind his attack on agriculture is merely to clarify the original intent of the Montana Subdivision and Platting Act, it's worth taking a look at the legislative history. I have recently pored through meeting minutes going back 38 years, when the MSPA was first established.

The MSPA was first passed in 1973 in order to give communities a process to follow in regards to how land was subdivided within their jurisdictions. In 1975, the act was amended to provide local governments with criteria to review subdivisions for their impacts to the public interest. Throughout the legislative debates on the local review process, two intents were crystal clear: the intent to protect Montana's agricultural land base for working farms and ranches, and an intent to vest control over subdivision review with local governments, rather than the state Legislature.

Proponents of HB542 argue that the 1975 MSPA amendments "in no way suggest that taking agricultural land out of production is considered an impact to be contemplated" (Missoula Organization of Realtors and Missoula Building Industry Association, "A Place to Grow," 2010). The legislative history, however, tells a different story; it illustrates a clear intent to protect agricultural land from unchecked development.

In fact, Rep. John Vincent, the chief sponsor of 1975 subdivision review criteria, introduced the bill by stating that he was "a proponent of this piece of legislation primarily because of the tragic intrusion on the agriculture land base of Montana," according to Montana House Natural Resources Committee minutes (Feb. 22, 1975). "He said this was especially brought home to him in his home county, Gallatin, (where) one has to drive but a short distance to see some of the best agricultural land covered by houses and subdivisions."

It is interesting to note that, of the seven review criteria under consideration in 1975 - including effects on agriculture, local services, taxation, the natural environment, wildlife and wildlife habitat, and public health and safety - it was the loss of farm and ranchland that motivated Vincent to propose his amendments to the MSPA in the first place.

The 1975 Legislature also recognized that local governments should have control over how to ensure that subdivisions in their area did not compromise the public interest. The Legislature created the 1975 review criteria to "speak directly to local problems," and intended these decisions to be "based on the local level" (minutes of the Montana Senate Natural Resources Committee, March 13, 1975).

The review criteria were created to "provide a standard for local decision making" while working to "preserve discretionary decision making at the local level and, at the same time, sharply limit arbitrary and capricious decision making" (Montana Natural Resources Committee standing report, March 13, 1975). Clearly, the 1975 Legislature understood the importance of agricultural land, and that local communities, not the state government, were best able to understand and address the needs of their jurisdictions.

It is no longer 1975, and the 2011 Legislature is free to establish the new intent to sacrifice farming and ranching communities for hasty subdivisions. However, I hope they have a little more respect for Montana's agricultural heritage and a lot more foresight for our state's leading industry in a hungry world. But make no mistake: if approved by the Senate, HB542 will hurt farmers and ranchers, lead to the permanent loss of agricultural land, and jeopardize Montana's top industry for decades to come.

Stephanie Laporte is a member of the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition.


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