Voices: A Tragic Trespass on Farmland in Montana – and Missoula

Neva Hassanein

Rather than working with their neighbors, some Missulians 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 overturn the will of Missoulans.

The assault on local control comes in the form of SB 211, which directly contradicts the intent of Montana’s subdivision law. The original craftsmen of this law wanted to ensure that agricultural land was not lost to uncontrolled development. In 1975, the Gallatin-based godfather of the subdivision law sounded the alarm over “the tragic intrusion of sprawl on Montana’s farmland.”

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

The impact that a subdivision could have on agriculture is one of the criteria to be considered. To facilitate the review, Missoula County has established a clear and measurable definition of agriculture, including soil quality.

Since the groups mentioned above couldn’t get by 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.” In addition, the bill states that communities cannot demand mitigation (such as land set aside or a fee) to compensate for loss of agricultural soil.

Local elected representatives are closest to the populations they represent. Removing local control means we won’t be able to pursue creative, collaborative solutions that both preserve property rights and conserve farmland for the common good. Apparently, supporters of the bill do not want a balanced approach based on community input. Instead, their preference is to impose the will of the state on the deliberations of our community.

Communities must 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 generally flat, well-drained and located close to towns and villages. But fertile soils are rare. Quality agricultural land 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 throughout Montana. Working farms and ranches reflect Montanans’ deep connection to the land and sense of place. Well-managed agricultural land preserves water quality, sequesters carbon and provides wildlife habitat. New economic opportunities arising from consumer demand for local foods are exploding. Whatever the future holds, we will need and want working farms and ranches.

Bill heads to the floor of the House. 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 agricultural systems.

Amalia H. Mercado