Over the last couple years, as local policymakers have emphasized the importance of preserving agricultural land in the Missoula Valley in the face of rapid development, a fundamental question keeps stumping them: What does it mean to mitigate for the loss of ag land?
The Missoula Building Industry Association (MBIA) and the Missoula Organization of Realtors (MOR), two groups that have pushed back as agricultural values have come to influence the subdivision review process, hope to find an answer.
In June they put out a Request for Proposal (RFP) to consultants to complete a study on the "legal, scientific, and economic issues surrounding the preservation of agricultural land, land-use planning, and local food production." The groups have raised about $30,000 for the study so far, and according to MBIA Executive Officer Tiffany Williams, they're close to hiring Bill VanCanagan of the Missoula law firm Datsopoulos, MacDonald & Lind.
"We want to start seeing policymakers make decisions based on facts, and not on assumptions," says Williams. She expects the report to be finalized by the end of the year.
But the RFP includes a stipulation that casts doubt over the groups' objectivity. It says they "reserve the right to accept a proposal that they deem is in the best interests of the named organizations and to reject any proposals that they deem not in the best interests of the named organizations."
"Hopefully what they mean by that," says Paul Hubbard of the Community Food & Agriculture Coalition, "is, 'Boy, we better protect real estate values and start looking at the way residential sprawl is not just decimating our farm and ranch land, but potentially compromising property values and the reasons why people want to live here.'"
Hubbard, however, isn't banking on it.
"Whether or not this report will be just one more way to prop up the status quo development patterns that are plowing through rural communities and plowing through our long-term food security," he continues, "I think we have yet to see."
Williams says the MBIA and MOR will stand by whatever the study determines.
"If whatever comes back from the study is something that may not on the surface seem friendly toward the development community, we're not going to reject that," she says. "We want to know answers."