Common ground 

Developers and farmland advocates have disagreed over how best to preserve Missoula's remaining prime soil, but now they seek solutions both can dig.

If there's one spot from which to view the impact of Missoula's Community Food & Agriculture Coalition (CFAC), it's the dirt parking lot at the end of Lavoie Lane. Here, where the Grass Valley meets the Clark Fork River, lay two pastoral parcels of flat ground primed for development. Indeed, reflecting the fate of so many former farms and ranches in the area, the Missoula Board of County Commissioners approved subdivisions on both.

But unlike so many other subdivisions, this land will sprout houses—and food. CFAC, a group sanctioned by the city and county in 2005 to implement a comprehensive food policy, collaborated with the developers of each parcel to cluster the lots and leave the remaining land for agriculture. To the south, the 317-acre Trout Meadows River Ranch subdivision permanently protects 160 acres of prime farmland from development. The adjacent 75-acre Blue Heron Estates subdivision, approved in February, protects 32 acres.

"It's good to walk out here because you can see what a huge chunk of property this is," says Jim Cusker, a retired farmer and farmland preservation advocate who serves on CFAC's Land Use and Agricultural Viability Committee.

As Cusker strides along the slough that bisects the two properties he points to the tall grass, an indication, he says, of how good the soil is here. And he looks into the trees edging the slough because this, he says, is "tremendously important bird habitat," and a couple days ago he saw his first robins and killdeer of the season.

Ron Ewart accompanies Cusker on the walk. They're a somewhat unlikely pair considering Ewart, of the Missoula-based civil engineering firm Eli & Associates, Inc., serves as a developer's representative. But they've been working together nearly six months, ever since Ewart submitted the second Blue Heron Estates subdivision proposal to the county.

The first proposal, submitted in 2008, represented what's considered the status quo subdivision pattern. Fifteen five-acre lots were spaced fairly evenly over these 75 acres. CFAC, which reviews subdivision applications and offers recommendations based on their impacts on agriculture, recommended denial of Blue Heron Estates early last year because the impacts were, as CFAC wrote, "significant and entirely unmitigated." Blue Heron sits on soil termed "prime if irrigated" by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resource Conservation Service, meaning it's soil that constitutes less than two percent of Missoula County.

So Ewart, with the support of an amenable landowner, redesigned the plan, creating a 25-acre common area encompassing the slough to satisfy the Audobon Society, and enlarging one lot to protect about 13 acres of agricultural land to satisfy CFAC.

"But that still wasn't really enough, as far as CFAC was concerned," Ewart says. "And I agree with them."

Ewart, after consulting with Cusker and other CFAC members, came back with a third plan, this time shrinking most of the lots down to about 1.4 acres, leaving the common area, as well as keeping 32 acres—more than 40 percent of the land—protected for perpetuity as farmland.

"Frankly," Ewart explains, holding a large map of Blue Heron Estates as he walks alongside Cusker, "we did not want to get a denial, and it kind of looked like, based on some other subdivisions we worked on in the recent past, that had we not made the changes we would have at least gotten a recommendation of denial from OPG (Missoula County Office of Planning and Grants), and probably a denial from the commissioners. And once you get a denial you have to start over and start the process again."

The commissioners approved the third plan on Feb. 3, and it stands out as perhaps the best example yet of CFAC's influence on new development in Missoula.

"We could get up [at the commissioners' hearing] and say, 'This is a marvelous plan as far as CFAC is concerned,'" Cusker says. "Undoubtedly, the largest amount of ag land that could be protected under these circumstances was protected, and that's crucial."

Blue Heron Estates serves as an example of successful collaboration, but also as an anomaly. For every landowner or developer eager to preserve their land's agricultural character, dozens more believe preserving that character should be paid for by the entire community, not by down-sized or clustered developments. And as CFAC has come to influence the subdivison review process over the last two years, the community has struggled more than it's succeeded in answering the question CFAC, with every subdivision it reviews, poses: How do we mitigate for the loss of agricultural land?

"That's the big question...," says Ewart. "The tricky part about it is that there are really no hard and fast rules as far as how much land you need to set aside for agriculture."

This year, Missoula will start digging for an answer.

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