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.

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In early 2008, after City Council rejected a subdivision proposal for the first time because of its impacts on agriculture, CFAC was invited to the subdivision review table to help the city and county navigate this new ground. Since then, CFAC has provided comments and recommendations on about 25 subdivision applications, just as other local agencies do to evaluate impacts on public health and safety, wildlife, and so on.

CFAC's involvement, says Bob Wagner, American Farmland Trust's senior director for farmland protection programs, "represents a very growing trend around the country of communities that are really recognizing that in addition to the cultural heritage and open space values of farmland, that there is this real strong connection with local food and food security and economic development opportunities."

CFAC may be relatively new to the scene, but the laws it works within are not. The 1973 Montana Subdivision and Platting Act (and more recent local subdivision regulations and growth policies) require that local governments review a proposed subdivision's impacts on agricultural land. But the law is vague, and local decision makers have generally accepted the loss of prime soil.

"What's happened," says Neva Hassanein, CFAC board member and associate professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana, "is that for every single subdivision that's come in, any potential impacts to agriculture are written off as incremental. Literally, that's the word they use. It's an 'incremental loss.' And those incremental losses have added up."

To wit, since 1986 in Missoula County, according to Montana Department of Revenue data compiled by CFAC, almost 29,000 acres of farm and ranchlands have been converted from agriculture uses to non-agricultural uses, or 1,443 acres per year on average.

As the case of Blue Heron Estates illustrates, CFAC works to stem the tide. And the group's had mixed success. CFAC reports that in 2008 and 2009 all 13 of the subdivision proposals it recommended denying were ultimately approved, and for every six acres of exceptional farmland converted to residential uses, just one acre was left for agricultural production. Despite its few tangible results, the group has fostered a community-wide conversation about how best to preserve the little prime soil remaining in the valley.

"I think CFAC has clout," says Tim Worley of OPG, who's worked on Blue Heron Estates, "but I think there's also a general discussion in the community about agricultural land preservation that sort of heightens that clout. It's not in a vacuum. I think there's a groundswell of, 'Well, do we want to lose this very small percentage of prime farmland that we have left in the valley bottom?'...CFAC brings it to the fore and crystallizes the issues in a way that wasn't done before.

click to enlarge Jim Cusker, left, of the Community Food & Agriculture Coalition (CFAC), and Ron Ewart, a developer’s representative with Eli & Associates, Inc., collaborated to preserve 32 acres of farmland within the recently approved 75-acre Blue Heron Estates subdivision in the Grass Valley. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Jim Cusker, left, of the Community Food & Agriculture Coalition (CFAC), and Ron Ewart, a developer’s representative with Eli & Associates, Inc., collaborated to preserve 32 acres of farmland within the recently approved 75-acre Blue Heron Estates subdivision in the Grass Valley.

"We, too," Worley continues, "have felt that the provision in state law for addressing impacts to agriculture is something that was probably inadequately addressed for a long time, and through all kinds of different circumstances converging at once, we have now started to address that."

But CFAC's attempts to preserve agricultural land have also sparked controversy. With the subdivision review process lacking guidelines on what it means to mitigate for the loss of agricultural land, local decision makers have subjectively decided, from proposal to proposal, how much loss is acceptable.

Take the contentious 10-acre Chickasaw Place development in Missoula's Orchard Homes neighborhood. Per CFAC's recommendation, City Council last year told the landowner, George Lake, that he'd have to set aside three acres of agricultural land to mitigate for the loss of the other seven. Lake complied, but then, after hearing from neighbors who didn't like the higher density of homes the preservation of ag land required, the city amended the plan by moving the ag parcel and reconfiguring some lots. No one–including CFAC–was satisfied with the rearrangement. When the annexation came up for a vote last March, the council voted 7-5 in favor of the plan, one vote short of the super-majority needed to pass. Ward 2 Councilwoman Pam Walzer cast the decisive 'no' vote. "When do we say enough is enough?" Walzer told the Independent the next day. "I guess last night, I said, 'Enough.'"

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