Cleaning Up “Urban Splatter” 

UM prof draws a grim picture of western Montana’s future

As Missoula grows, it becomes more like other regional urban centers across the United States and risks losing the uniqueness that caused the growth in the first place. At the same time, Missoula’s growth and economic success has a direct—and often adverse—effect on smaller communities surrounding it.

That was the message University of Montana Professor John Horwich had for about 50 people interested in growth at a forum in Hamilton last week.

The definition of rapid growth and its accompanying problems are subjects Horwich knows well. He practiced environmental law representing businesses and developers for 15 years and has taught those subjects at UM’s law school for the past 10 years.

The picture he painted is uncompromisingly grim. In Montana, he cites, about 42 percent of the land belongs to the state, tribal and federal governments. Development takes place on the remaining 58 percent. In Ravalli County, the percentage of publicly owned lands rises to 78 percent and development takes place on the remaining 22 percent. From 1990 to 1997 subdivisions in unincorporated areas of the state increased by 184 percent and the number of lots reviewed by the state more than tripled.

However, Horwich is quick to add that the task facing communities to retain their own identity and a healthy economy is daunting, but doable.

“Splatter,” not “sprawl,” is a more realistic name for what happens in rural counties that experience major growth spurts, Horwich says. Single homes and small subdivisions appear randomly on the rural landscape in an inefficient use of land as people move away from urban centers seeking a piece of the “Western dream.” “Our dreams are in the public lands, but we must live in the private lands,” Horwich says. “The choices we make for those lands influence everyone who lives and visits here.”

Nowhere are these growth patterns more apparent than in rural counties near large—and growing—regional centers. As the centers expand, the surrounding small towns decline. The expansion of the regional centers makes them attractive to large chain stores. Those large stores then arrive, complete with an already established architectural design. Over time, new development in the regional center makes it look like every other town of a similar size anywhere in the country.

“This sprawling haphazard development denigrates the landscape,” Horwich says. “We move here for the incredible wilderness views and the foreground becomes cluttered with strip development.”

Splatter not only consumes huge amounts of valuable agricultural land, it also fosters “auto-dependence” in residents. Energy consumption is high, with long trips to work, school, shopping and recreation opportunities. Commercial fragmentation and sprawl create a synergy that encourages residential sprawl, according to Horwich.

This, in turn, is partly what attracts chain stores and restaurants. They are drawn to an auto-dependent area as surely “as flies to a no-pest strip,” in Horwich’s colorful estimation. The standard single-story building in a sea of paved parking spaces requires large amounts of land and fosters the use of automobiles to access the services provided there.

Just one casualty of all this, Horwich goes on, is a town’s close-knit character. A “sense of community” is a major factor in many decisions to move to an area, he points out, but that sense declines or is destroyed by auto-dependent growth.

“All too often the only interaction between drivers in vehicles is an exchange of rude gestures,” Horwich notes. “Local flavor is what sets a community apart and makes it special. The natural setting, the architecture, buildings that share a common style or tradition—all are attributes of an attractive community.”

But the even greater effects of regional center expansion can be economic, especially the all-too-frequent decline of smaller towns that ring the center. Economic impacts of Missoula’s growth, Horwich notes, are felt in Alberton, Hamilton, Drummond and Seeley Lake.

“The towns’ business centers lose out because they can’t compete with the prices and varieties offered by the large chain stores,” Horwich says. “As stores close in smaller towns, there are less and less reasons for local consumers to stop and shop there. Retailing is becoming a losing proposition in small towns.”

Residential development, such as that being experienced in Ravalli County, does not bring a direct economic benefit to the valley’s small towns. Middle- to upper-class urban refugees are accustomed to shopping in regional centers and continue to do so. Strip development full of chain fast food establishments add an appearance of additional business to smaller towns when in reality they offer part-time, minimum-wage employment and their architectural sameness overwhelms the uniqueness of each little community, Horwich says.

“The impacts are gradual and cumulative and the landscape is changed forever,” he adds.

On a brighter note, Horwich insists that economic prosperity and wise land use are not incompatible. But considerable effort must be expended to create urban areas that are desirable and attractive.

“We in Missoula passed a $5 million bond issue to preserve open space on our hillsides but have not developed a growth plan for our city,” Horwich notes. “We have learned to manage the natural aesthetics that surround us in the non-urban West, but we seem oblivious to the impact of architectural development in the same areas. That has to change. We have to change it.”

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