Jim Richardson, a 69-year-old retired farmer and rancher from Frenchtown, stood before the Missoula Board of County Commissioners and a nearly full room last week to make a simple argument.
“I hate to see these houses going on good ground,” he said.
Richardson’s statement aptly summarized the case made by the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition (CFAC), which asked the commission to deny the proposed Red Dog subdivision in Richardson’s town. The land constitutes some of Missoula County’s best farmland, and CFAC, among others, viewed the proposal as the first true test of the commission’s ability to use the subdivision review process to preserve vital agriculture.
But the commissioners, while expressing sympathy for those pushing for a precedent-setting decision, still voted 2-1 in favor of the proposal. They pointed to key elements of the plan, such as energy-efficiency incentives and about 11 acres set aside for commercial farming and community gardens, as reasons to greenlight the project.
“For the commissioners to vote to approve the development of a 46-acre farm with an irrigation ditch and some of the county’s best soils is highly disappointing,” says CFAC’s Paul Hubbard. “And it is a missed opportunity to develop a portion of the farm, while keeping the vast majority in agriculture.”
Specifically, Hubbard argues that “Prime if Irrigated Farmland,” as classified by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, constitutes less than two percent of Missoula County, and using 46 acres of that rare land to sprout 82 houses is an egregious mistake. He calls it an irreplaceable loss of farmland that further erodes the county’s long-term food security.
“Once ag land is gone, it’s gone,” says Commissioner Michele Landquist, the dissenting vote on the proposal. “We have to recognize that in a really big way.”
Under state law county commissioners are able to deny a subdivision based on its impacts to local agriculture, but seldom is it a deciding factor. That could change in Missoula, however, largely thanks to CFAC, a group sanctioned by the county in 2005 to implement a comprehensive food policy. CFAC works to assess the potential for viable agricultural operations and the potential adverse impacts of subdivisions.
CFAC’s analysis of the Frenchtown land was enough for the Missoula County Planning Board to recommend denial of Red Dog three weeks ago, to no avail. And it sparked a discussion among planning board members, led by architect Don MacArthur, about the lack of precedent and political will to defend agriculture from sprawling development.
“In a way Red Dog was a perfect example,” MacArthur says, “because it’s a piece of land that is pretty developable in all ways other than the fact that it has prime soils under it.”
With the potential for prime soils to foil an otherwise well-planned subdivision, Ryan Morton of the Missoula Building Industry Association also spoke up at the Jan. 21 hearing because “the magnitude was large and the policy was unclear.”
“Everyone in the building industry and the development industry has this flagged,” he says. “They are looking for ways to deal with it, and it doesn’t seem like we’ve gotten to any sort of regulatory option or regulatory clarity.”
The main regulatory question Morton raises: What is sufficient mitigation for the loss of agricultural land? The answer is unclear and, in the end, comes down to the discretion of the county commissioners, weighed against myriad other community interests.
In the case of Red Dog, Commissioners Jean Curtiss and Bill Carey concluded that preserving 11 acres is enough to make up for the loss of the other 35. As Morton says, “I don’t think they should be denying without substantial facts or substantial opportunities for mitigation. They understood that and that’s why it got approved.”
Carey—an appointed CFAC member—says as much.
“Under state law it’s pretty difficult to deny a subdivision on preservation of agricultural land alone,” he says. The commissioners have the power to do it, he acknowledged, but he’s not sure it would hold up legally. “What would the judge eventually say?”
“I think the proposal that we were presented was about the best we could do in the real world right now,” Carey adds.
But MacArthur is hoping for better.
“The legal basis, I think we have it. The precedent, I think we’ve got to change it,” he says. “We’ve got to start making a new precedent that says when you’re eating up farmland that is prime, that is a limited resource, that you have to be very careful of how you develop it, preserve the maximum amount, and still come up with ways the property owners can get the value out of their property.”
Buzz Alexander, the property owner behind the Red Dog proposal, believes he did his best to assuage the county’s concerns. Before the vote, he worried the county was going to force him to be a farmer. His cousin Ed is growing wheat and hay on the land today, and claims to make a profit only one out of every 10 years.
“If a human being can’t make a living on a 40-acre piece of ground farming, then there’s got to be another use for it,” says Alexander. “If the highest and best use—because it’s a mile from a freeway interchange—is buildings, then so be it.”
Still, the argument’s not good enough for life-long Frenchtown residents like Jim Richardson, the retired farmer who remembers when sugar beets grew where there soon will be houses.
“I don’t think we should be chopping up good farm ground for subdivisions,” he says. “We gotta eat.”