Law of the land

A bill bulldozing its way through the state legislature would largely strip Missoula County and other local governments around Montana of their ability to prevent subdivision development on farmland.

SB 147, sponsored by Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, amends the Montana Subdivision and Platting Act, which regulates subdivision development statewide. If the bill becomes law, local officials could no longer deny or alter a subdivision proposal due to adverse "impact on agriculture." That phrase would be replaced with language that weakens agricultural protections and makes subdivision approval easier to obtain.

Under SB 147, Missoula County's recent efforts to preserve a dwindling agricultural base would be hampered. Missoula County opposes the bill.

"This bill would restrict our ability to look at a subdivision's impact on agriculture in our community based on the loss of agricultural production," says County Commissioner Jean Curtiss. "What this bill does is take away our community's ability to define what is important to protect."

Under the bill, the county could only look at a proposed subdivision's impact on "adjacent agricultural operations." Only farmers that share a property boundary with a proposed subdivision would have standing during review. Other local farmers and farmland conservation groups say they would be excluded from the process.

"If the bill passes, our ability to advocate for agricultural lands will be gone," says Annie Heuscher of the Missoula Community Food and Agriculture Coalition. "The bigger picture—the loss of agricultural soils—won't be addressed at all [during review]."

Proponents of the bill argue that farmland conservation groups like CFAC have misused Montana's subdivision regulations in order to preserve land. They say SB 147 is meant to protect the property rights of those who wish to develop their land.

"The current law has been bended in such a way that it has become a mechanism to protect open space, rather than the property rights of agricultural communities," says Austin James of the Missoula Organization of Realtors, a group that is advocating for the bill. "This bill clarifies the law."

CFAC staffers say they have used the law to protect agricultural soils, not open space. And they worry that more subdivisions in Missoula County will push farmland prices ever-higher, making the agricultural economy less viable.

SB 147 passed the Senate, and was assigned to the House Local Government Committee. No hearing date has been set.

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