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Voices: A tragic intrusion on agricultural land in Montana – and in Missoula

Neva Hassanein

Rather than work with their neighbors, some Missoulians are attacking our community’s right to determine our own future.

The Missoula Organization of Realtors, led by Jim Bachand and represented by Alan McCormick; the Missoula Building Industry Association, led by Jared Kuehn of First Security Bank; and Paul Forsting of MBIA and Territorial Landworks (IMEG) are among those leading the charge to subvert the will of Missoulians.

The assault on local control takes the form of SB 211, which directly contradicts the intent of Montana’s subdivision law. The original crafters of this law wanted to ensure that agricultural land was not lost to unchecked development. In 1975, the Gallatin-based sponsor of the subdivision law sounded alarm over sprawl’s “tragic intrusion on the agriculture land base of Montana.”

Under current law, when a developer proposes a subdivision, local governments must look at how it might impact things like taxation, wildlife, and public safety. If impacts are documented, they must be addressed before development occurs.

The impact that a subdivision might have on agriculture is one of the criteria that must be considered. To facilitate consideration, Missoula County established a clear, measurable definition of agriculture, including the quality of the soils.

Since the above-mentioned groups couldn’t get their way in Missoula, they are pushing SB 211, which will affect all of Montana.

SB 211 excludes “any consideration of whether the proposed subdivision will result in loss of agricultural soils.” Also, the bill says that communities cannot require mitigation (such as set-aside of land or a fee) to compensate for the loss of agricultural soils.

Local elected officials are the closest to the people they represent. Taking away local control means we will not be able to pursue creative, collaborative solutions that both preserve property rights and conserve agricultural land for the common good. Apparently, the bill’s proponents don’t want a balanced approach based on community input. Instead, their preference is to impose the will of the State over deliberations in our community.

Communities need to be able to plan for their agricultural future, as evidenced by the disrupted supply chains during the pandemic. Farmland is attractive for development because it is usually flat, well drained, and located near cities and towns. But fertile soils are rare. Quality farmland is irreplaceable. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

We all have a stake in the outcome of this debate. If passed, SB 211 will eliminate consideration of the many benefits agriculture provides all across Montana. Working farms and ranches reflect Montanans’ deep connection to the land and sense of place. Well-managed agricultural lands preserve water quality, sequester carbon, and provide wildlife habitat. New economic opportunities from the consumer demand for local foods are exploding. Whatever the future may bring, we will need and want working farms and ranches.

The bill is heading to the House floor. Please hold these organizations accountable, speak up for local control, and urge all Representatives to vote no on SB 211.

Neva Hassanein, PhD, specializes in the study of contemporary food and agriculture systems.