Beets or 'burbs? 

Alexandra Estates revives farmland debate

When Nick Kaufman took to the podium a couple of weeks ago to sell the Missoula Planning Board on the proposed Alexandra Estates subdivision, off Highway 93 between Missoula and Lolo, he suspected one point would matter more than the rest: the subdivision's impacts on the prime farmland where it would sit.

So Kaufman, a planner with the WGM Group, a local engineering firm, demonstrated to the board just how productive Alexandra Estates' 23 five-acre lots could be.

Kaufman showed aerial photographs of Clark Fork Organics' five acres on the corner of 3rd and Tower streets, the five-acre PEAS Farm in the Rattlesnake Valley and his own five-acre parcel, where Kaufman has an orchard, raises 50 chickens, occasionally grazes some cattle and grows corn, potatoes and pumpkins, among other crops.

"If five-acre parcels are not producing agricultural products for sale, then I guess the question I have is, What's supplying the two farmers markets downtown?" Kaufman asked. "What's supplying Orchard Homes farmers market? And what's supplying the Target Range farmers market?"

click to enlarge Missoula news
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Ken Allen proposes a 23-lot subdivision on these 116 acres between Missoula and Lolo.

Kaufman, who was representing property owner Ken Allen, said the houses and roads in his design would consume only about 12 percent of the 116 acres of farmland, whereas one-acre lots would consume 24 percent and half-acre lots 34 percent. "What I gave you was my best design," he said.

But it may not be good enough.

After Kaufman's presentation, members of the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition of Missoula County explained why they oppose the development. In 2005, the city and county asked CFAC to develop a comprehensive food policy. It has reviewed and commented on 30 subdivision proposals since 2008, when city council and county commission members began to consider seriously the ways that new subdivisions were eating up the Missoula area's dwindling farmland. CFAC has been gaining influence—to the dismay of real estate developers.

CFAC's message is that Missoula County's prime agricultural soils, which are found on just two percent of county land, are the foundation of the local food system. Once it's developed, it's gone forever.

"The message is the same tonight," CFAC's Paul Hubbard told the planning board as they considered Alexandra Estates, "but the stakes are higher than they've ever been on any of the other subdivisions that we've looked at. This is, by far...the most irresponsible use of some of the best farmland we have left in Missoula County."

Hubbard said a more responsible design would cluster the homes onto the parcel's less fertile soils and leave largely intact the 75 acres of Grantsdale and Alberton loam, which run two to five feet deep before hitting gravel.

The Alexandra Estates proposal suggests that while developers have become more mindful of the new emphasis on preserving ag land, they're still far from embracing it.

That was evident during the legislative session earlier in the year, when the Montana Association of Realtors tried, unsuccessfully, to amend a state statute in order to end the ability of local governments to reject new subdivisions for devouring ag land. And it was evident last year when the Missoula Organization of Realtors and the Missoula Building Industries Association released a report asserting that when local governments seek to keep agricultural lands from development, they are being "un-American and, most likely, unconstitutional."

Those groups say forcing a landowner to preserve land for agriculture infringes on private property rights. Above all, developers are crying out for more predictability.

The Missoula County Office of Planning and Grants hasn't done much to provide it.

OPG recommended approval of Alexandra Estates. Tim Worley, an OPG planner, explained during the planning board meeting that OPG couldn't "cherry pick" impacts on agriculture when that's just one among many criteria OPG must consider—though it appears to have done exactly that in the past.

Worley also said OPG took into consideration the fact that the soils are fragmented at the site of the proposed subdivision; a swath of the property contains gravelly soil; elsewhere, soil has been disturbed. "If this were completely prime farmland without the inclusions of non-prime, we might not be having this discussion, to be quite honest," Worley said.

Don MacArthur, an architect who chairs the planning board, responded, saying that Missoula needs to protect all its farmland resources—"not just the two percent that are labeled as prime farmlands. I'd like [OPG] to reconsider that opinion and to start thinking about a little bit different definition of what constitutes the land that is precious and needs to be preserved."

MacArthur went on to say that he appreciates Kaufman's attempt to mitigate the loss of farmland, but it didn't go far enough.

"I think there are opportunities, from the way I look at this piece of land, to...still get the development potential, in terms of a return, and conserve farmland," MacArthur said. "I don't see that this is necessarily either/or. I think there are ways to do both that I could personally get behind. This isn't it."

The board's other members agreed. They voted unanimously to recommend denial of Alexandria Estates.

The Missoula Board of County Commissioners will take up the proposal at its Dec. 7 meeting.

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