Sound land use planning laws will build sustainable communities

ANN SCHWEND

Montana’s explosive popularity is stretching capacity and resources to the breaking point. Many communities are bursting at the seams, pushing development onto farmland, perilously perched homes on the city-wilderness border, and building steeply near flooded rivers. Climate change is exacerbating these impacts by affecting water supplies (droughts and floods) and increasing the frequency of severe forest fires. We need a variety of affordable housing options to accommodate all Montans, but what we do on the landscape and where we develop will be critical to the future of Montana’s communities and the health of our environment.

A look at our past legislatures can help predict what we see as proposed “solutions.” A series of bills were introduced in the 2021 session that would have limited local communities’ ability to adequately plan for their future and protect the things that matter to them. Fortunately, most of these bills were rejected by the legislature because they were knee-jerk reactions, poorly thought out, and had little support. Session 2023 is upon us, and housing and planning issues are coming to the fore. We expect several proposals to reform our land use and planning laws. Some of these proposals recommend government-mandated planning approaches that would undermine local control.

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Without a doubt, it’s time to modernize Montana’s land use planning laws. But prescribing remedies without diagnosing all of the symptoms won’t solve the underlying problems. We need to zoom out and first do a thorough analysis of environmental concerns, community infrastructure and housing needs, and then use that data to inform and implement responsive policies. We must recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to a crisis as complex as fair housing in a state as large and diverse as Montana.

Recently, Governor Gianforte appointed a Housing Task Force to address Montana’s housing crisis. While we are bullish on aspects of the recently released report to the governor, we see some of the same “top-down” items that were rejected at the 2021 session. If the task force is serious about solving Montana’s housing crisis, it should strengthen local leadership and provide incentives that support forward-thinking communities to adopt comprehensive, long-term strategies that reward sustainable development within existing urban footprints.

Several of the task force’s recommendations would provide incentives and much-needed funding to seize opportunities to invest in infrastructure and support the public-private partnerships that create diverse housing opportunities for communities. We strongly support the recommended instruments to increase funding and options for affordable housing and to invest in programs that bring people into homes. While we hope for those inclusions, we want to make sure that by simply building more homes, we don’t lose sight of protecting our natural resources. Ideally, development should occur within the main public water and sewage utilities, not at individual ‘exempt’ wells and sewage systems which require more land and are difficult to monitor.

Montana is growing, but let’s not miss this opportunity to be strategic and build green, affordable, and socially connected communities for the long term. We need strong land use plans and water policies developed through inclusive community processes that assess the full spectrum of housing needs, the natural resources we must protect, and future infrastructure to support that growth. Plans should identify locations and strategies to achieve these goals, and then adjust local zoning codes that allow for locally defined, reasonable densities.

As has been MEIC’s focus for nearly 50 years, we will continue to work to protect clean air, clean water and a livable climate for Montana. It starts with advocating strong and thoughtful environmental protection through the use of incentives and regulations. Ahead of the 2023 session, let’s think more holistically about development and advocate for laws that enable sustainable growth so that we can all live safely, affordably and equitably within our ecological means.

Let’s build communities, not just homes.

Ann Schwend is an Advocate for Sustainable Community Planning at the Montana Environmental Information Center.

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