By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Missoula County commissioners have turned the page on a contentious policy vote and are looking to community groups to develop new ways to protect agricultural land, including smaller plots facing increased development pressure in the Missoula Valley.
Commissioners recently panned a controversial section of the county’s subdivision regulations designed to protect agricultural land from development. As presented, they said, the proposal would have penalized the county’s larger land holders while doing little to preserve smaller ag operations near the urban fringe.
“There’s a lot of different ways to subdivide land that minimizes the impacts over what we can do through regulation,” Commissioner Cola Rowley said the morning after voting against the policy. “When something can be achieved voluntarily or through incentives, or in other ways that are private-sector based or community based, that’s a better direction to go than the government trying to regulate something.”
The regulation in question would have required landowners to select from a menu of options when developing their property – options that included impact fees, set-asides, or dedicating a portion of their development for agriculture.
The Missoula County Planning Board had narrowly approved the measure as a means to help protect ag lands from development and to keep working farms and ranches in production. It had won the support of several local groups as well, including the Community Food and Agricultural Coalition and Montana Shares, among others.
“We agreed with the planning board and county staff that the regulation was critical to protect our remaining ag lands,” said Diana Meneta, co-chair of the Missoula Chapter of the Montana Conservation Voters. “They made the recommendation after a years-long process. We certainly intend to participate in the discussion moving forward.”
Advocates believe the policy would have preserved productive soils, encouraged wise land use and helped those in the ag business keep their operation running. They often described the county’s viable ag land as a finite resource, one that will continue to dwindle as Missoula continues to grow.
But commissioners believe the policy represented governmental overreach. Commissioner Jean Curtiss said it was unfair to compare a large operation facing market pressures and other risks inherent to agriculture with a hobby farm in the Missoula Valley.
“There really is a difference in whether you own 300 acres in Potomac or 3 acres in Target Range,” Curtiss said. “The implications of adopting the policy as it was brought to us would have unfairly burdened the large, traditional farmers.”
Commissioners aren’t alone in believing the policy would have failed to achieve its goal.
The Five Valleys Land Trust opposed the proposal, saying ag lands and the practices that surround them are diverse. It was unwise, the group contends, to apply a single tool to protect all forms of agriculture.
According to Five Valleys, ag production on smaller parcels has increased, along with community interest in small-scale operations. The group encouraged commissioners to identify existing successes and tailor them to suit the county’s future.
The group also presented several tools for the county to consider, and the commissioners have taken the suggestions to heart. Among other things, commissioners directed county staff to explore the concept of a farm incubator, through which newcomers would learn how to mange the farming business and work the land.
Commissioners also directed staff to explore the concept of a conservation development. Five Valleys believes that a successful pilot project could prove more profitable than development, allowing market forces to dictate how land is used,
That could create a shift toward more conservation efforts.
“A real project with appraised land or housing sales would also help agricultural lenders, landowners, land trusts, and appraisers develop more certainty about the impacts of this concept on landowner borrowing potential or existing easement incentives,” Five Valleys wrote in a January letter to the county.
Commissioners don’t disagree with the policy’s supporters in that more can be done to protect ag lands and encourage small scale farming. Yet they do dispute suggestions that 1,000 acres of agricultural land is lost in Missoula County each year.
Over the past few decades, Rowley said, nearly 22 percent of the county’s land base has been conserved. Voters have passed several open space bonds, they said, and Garden City Harvest and the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition have set trends in small-scale food production.
Commissioner Stacy Rye said the “land loss” figures presented by some policy supporters fail to consider the tax classification imposed by the Montana Department of Revenue.
“It doesn’t mean the land was developed,” Rye said. “It just means, for the purpose of the DOR, that’s it’s not in agricultural production for tax purposes. We can’t make farming happen. We can encourage that, but we can’t make it happen.”
Commissioners do plan to encourage and nurture farming on a small scale, and they’ve directed county staff to begin exploring the tools to make it possible. But unlike the policy presented in the subdivision regulations, they believe the community should present the solution.
It shouldn’t be a government mandate, they agreed.
“We aren’t the subject matter experts on how to do this, but we have a lot people in our community who are,” Rowley said. “I truly believe this policy would not have been effective in doing what the supporters wanted it to do. We need community-wide input to find what will be effective, identify what we want to achieve, and how to accomplish that.”