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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CFAC takes issue with a couple of the development community's arguments. It says an acre of ground in the middle of town can be productive, and dozens of area farmers prove it. It also disputes the notion that developers shouldn't shoulder any responsibility in preserving prime soils. Because farms and ranches generate more in tax revenue than they require for government services, CFAC says residential development costs local governments—and therefore taxpayers—more than it costs to leave the land in agriculture.

More than that, though, Hassanein says the community should value soil in the same way that it values, for example, riparian areas, which developers have to plan around.

"Soil is also a really important resource," she says. "In fact, it's as important, in my view. So the idea that the public always has to pay doesn't sit well with me, when in fact it's the developers that profit from these subdivisions."

click to enlarge The Blue Heron Estates subdivision proposal evolved before the Missoula County Commissioners approved it in February. The  (CFAC) recommended denial of the first two proposals shown at top and middle, respectively. CFAC eventually supported the final plan, bottom, because it protected 32 acres of prime farm land.
  • The Blue Heron Estates subdivision proposal evolved before the Missoula County Commissioners approved it in February. The (CFAC) recommended denial of the first two proposals shown at top and middle, respectively. CFAC eventually supported the final plan, bottom, because it protected 32 acres of prime farm land.

Despite the differences in opinion on how best to save agricultural land, farmland preservation advocates and developers at least agree that the subdivision review process needs, above all else, defined standards.

"There's no larger comprehensive policy guiding the protection of farmland, and that has been a challenge for both CFAC as well as for developers and landowners," Hassanein says. "And I think we all respect the interests of landowners and the equity they have built in their lands. So if there is common ground it's that everyone wants predictability in the process, and fairness in the process."

OPG's Worley agrees, and says the answer clearly lies with tighter guidelines.

"We don't really have—and this is a general problem at the state level and at the local level, both county and city—clear regulations and statues to work with," he says.

By chance, now turns out to be the perfect time to address the problem. City Councilwoman Lyn Hellegaard, who describes the current process as "shooting in the dark," says the current economy offers an opportunity to seek guidelines.

"We're not seeing the development that we were seeing two or three years ago," Hellegaard says. "So it gives us time to do the work, to come up with good policies hopefully before it starts up again so that everybody knows what the expectations are."

To help inform the discussion, CFAC released a report on April 7 titled, "Losing Ground: The Future of Farms and Food in Missoula County," authored primarily by CFAC Land Use Program Coordinator Paul Hubbard. The report offers the most complete assessment Missoula has of the state of agriculture in the county, where the best soil is found, and the pace at which, and the pattern by which, the county's losing it.

Most importantly, the report details recommendations to answer the mitigation question. It recommends identifying "Agricultural Cornerstone Areas" that are priorities for farm and ranchland protection in the city and county; enacting "Agriculture Resource Standards" in local zoning ordinances and subdivision regulations; bringing to bear incentives to encourage and reward farmland conservation; assisting beginning farmers and ranchers in securing land and establishing viable operations; and expanding the capacity of Missoula's markets to source locally produced foods and assisting producers in accessing those markets.

"This idea of creating agricultural cornerstones," Hassanein says, "is to decide as a community, 'Where do we want to protect agricultural land? Where are the priorities?'"

The purpose of mitigation, she explains, is to minimize losses by permanently protecting lands of equal agricultural value. So, for instance, if a development proposal comes in and it's going to impact agricultural land, that impact might be mitigated by protecting land within a cornerstone area with a conservation easement. It might also be mitigated by protecting land on the site if the developer prefers that option. Or, in some cases, a developer might pay a fee into a fund that would eventually be used to purchase development rights, ideally in a cornerstone area.

CFAC's report will be soon followed by the MOR and MBIA-funded report, which, in response to the heightened agricultural awareness CFAC has cultivated over the past two years, aims to bring balance to the discussion. MOR spokeswoman Ruth Link says the report, expected by May, was commissioned last summer.

"If you're going to make a policy on something, if you're going to make a decision on something, have it be based in science," Link says. "It's not for or against. It's just, 'Let's make the decisions based on facts.'"

Adds Andy Short: "The commissioners and City Council are now making decisions based on a group that's pro-agriculture. And so what we wanted was a study that says, 'Hey, let's look at it from a balanced point of view.'"

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