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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The CFAC and MOR/MBIA reports will serve as the introductions to a broader community-wide discussion slated to begin, according to OPG Director Roger Millar, in the coming weeks.

"With the economy slowed and subdivision development not happening," Millar says, "it's a good time to have that conversation."

click to enlarge According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, important agricultural soils in Missoula County account for just 7.8 percent of the land. Only 1.8 percent is considered “prime” and “prime if irrigated.” Much of the land has already been developed. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, important agricultural soils in Missoula County account for just 7.8 percent of the land. Only 1.8 percent is considered “prime” and “prime if irrigated.” Much of the land has already been developed.

If consensus is to be found between farmland preservation advocates and the development community, it might grow from the collaboration achieved over Blue Heron Estates.

Perhaps the most salient lesson to be drawn from Blue Heron Estates, says OPG's Worley, is that the more developers can be flexible, the better the chances of a positive result.

"If you dig your heels in and say, 'This is exactly the outcome I want and I'm not taking no for an answer,' that always leads to difficulties for everybody," he says, "and nobody's happy at the end."

Blue Heron Estates also serves as a microcosm of the agricultural cornerstone areas farmland preservation advocates hope to establish.

"The Blue Heron piece is right next to the Trout Meadows piece," Hassanein says, "and so you're going to end up with this contiguous agricultural area. Well, on a larger scale, that's what we need to do. We need to identify the areas we want to protect as a community. And then we need to figure out how to really target protection into those areas through a mitigation process so the incremental losses aren't just adding up."

It's a long row to hoe, but unlikely collaborators Jim Cusker and Ron Ewart make it seem less daunting. As their recent walk reaches the end of the Blue Heron Estates property, where the slough passes beneath a culvert, Ewart says he's spotted otters here. Cusker raises his hand to shield the sun from his eyes, and looks back to the dirt parking lot at the end of Lavoie Lane.

"From about here all the way over, see," he says, pointing back toward the road, "that's the ag lot, and that's a sizable acreage. When you're farming it's nice to have this length. It's not chopped up much. It's really a beautiful agricultural acreage...and it's going to stay that way."

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