Blair Miller

(Daily Montanan) Two bills that aim to reduce the time it takes for land use and certain construction project decisions to be made at the local level breezed through their first committee hearing Wednesday without significant opposition.

They are among a slate of bills related to housing and construction planned for this session as Montana’s housing shortage continues and prices skyrocket while construction lags.

Senate Bill 130 would allow local governments like cities or counties to consolidate their planning boards, zoning commission and board of adjustment into a single land-use board.

Senate Bill 131 would put a limit of 20 working days, or about a month, in place for local governments to approve or deny subdivision applications that are exempt from review and ensure the government does not impose conditions of approval.

Both bills are sponsored by Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, who said they would speed up development in Montana and keep landowners from having to wait months for decisions.

Glenn Oppel, the policy director for Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte, said SB 131 was an “incremental step” in reforming Montana land use and came out of work from the governor’s housing task force.

“It’s not going to solve the housing crisis, but it’s one step in the right direction, and we support it,” he told the Senate Local Government Committee on Wednesday afternoon.

Family land transfers, right-of-way creation, new cemeteries, farming leases and some new construction are among the things that could be exempt from subdivision review, according to statute and the proponents.

Adrianne Cotton, a member of the Montana Building Industry Association and Lewis and Clark Consolidated City and County Planning Board who testified in favor of the measure, said it would cut down on building delays caused by government.

“Anytime we can sort of expedite that process in local government, you end up quickening the pace that developers are waiting, that builders are waiting,” she said. “So much of our building gets stuck in zoning and subdivision review.”

Several affordable housing proponents said they were in favor of the measure to speed up those projects.

Alan McCormick, an attorney representing the Montana Association of Realtors, said the section noting that conditions of approval cannot be imposed by a government would cut down on confusion and disagreement among counties about how the process works.

No one testified in opposition to the bill Wednesday.

SB130, according to Mandeville and proponents who spoke at the hearing, aims to address a lack of volunteers for boards of planning, zoning commissions and boards of adjustment they said has led to delays.

Local governments – cities or counties– would be able to choose to move to the consolidated land-use board model and appoint five citizens to the board under the measure, which was amended to include cities and consolidated city-counties.

If the board is created out of an existing joint or consolidated board, or a city-county planning board, it would be required to have at least nine sitting members.

“This would speed up the development process by creating a centralized board that could hear all three issues,” Mandeville told the committee.

He said the bill would allow for a streamlined board where people could go for initial zoning recommendations and subdivision reviews, zoning regulation, and then any changes to zoning code.

Several proponents said they appreciated that it preserved local control over those decisions. Karen Alley, who testified on behalf of the Montana Association of Counties, said the organization believes “the most effective land use policies are initiated at the local level.”

“It gives one body a wealth of knowledge that three or more bodies would have otherwise,” she said.

All but one of the people who spoke at the hearing were in favor of the measure.

Ann Schwend, the sustainable communities policy director for the Montana Environmental Information Center, said she felt it was a “great bill,” while Missoula County’s Jennifer Hensley said she appreciated the option local governments would have in considering whether to consolidate the boards and commissions into one board.

“This is such a great idea that everyone wants it to apply to them,” Mandeville joked.