By Ann Schwend
If effectively managing land and water wasn’t complicated enough, Montana is now experiencing a housing shortage that is driving prices through the roof. The lack of “housing stock” on the market is making it extremely difficult for hardworking Montanans to own or rent a place of their own, and it makes protecting water and healthy landscapes even more challenging.
But what exactly do we mean when we say “affordable?” The federal government defines housing as affordable when it consumes no more than 30% of gross income, including utilities. With median household incomes in Montana around $57,000, and median home prices in many of Montana’s cities exceeding $400,000, housing is unaffordable for a large number of Montana residents, if they can even find something to buy or rent. So, how do we solve the affordable housing crisis without creating unmitigated sprawl or weakening environmental protections?
As it turns out, MEIC (or “EIC” back in the day) has been working on this topic for almost 50 years. On my first day of work, Adam McLane, our resident historian, handed me a vintage copy of a publication we produced and distributed in 1975 called the Montana Subdivision Inventory Project. It covers the perils of subdivisions with article titles such as “The Bitter Root boom could chop up the valley’s whole land base by 1979,” “Agriculture faces subdivision, saline seep, corporate farming, lowering profits, erosion, rising taxes, strip mining,” and my personal favorite, “Montana could avoid growth follies of other areas.” This excerpt reminds me that perhaps we should consider some of the wisdom that was apparent then:
If we value our rural nature and our open spaces, then we must forget the tired old belief that all growth is good. And we must recognize that Montana’s resources – agricultural lands, wildlife and forests in particular – are finite. For the same level and well-drained fields that are most alluring to developers are also the most valuable to agriculture. Most of Montana’s subdivision growth centers in the fertile valleys near larger cities. And lands that are best for watersheds, wildlife and forests are also appealing sites for second homes in the country….
We can keep saying more is better for ourselves and forget tomorrow. Or we can have the courage and ingenuity to abandon the destructive patterns of our past. We can begin by together preserving the land that gives us food – and life.
Forty-seven years later, we find ourselves revisiting the same issues and similar conversations, though it’s my hope and belief that we’ve learned a lot since then. This is, however, the first time in years that MEIC has had a staff person dedicated to working primarily on these issues. From water concerns and the Montana Subdivision and Platting Act to building codes and zoning laws, it’s challenging to learn, discuss, and make decisions about policies that lead to affordable, sustainable development.
As I’m settling into my new role and formulating what “sustainable development” actually means, there are a few things we can agree on from the outset:
- Sustainable development is a nonpartisan issue. Our relationship with land, housing, and resources like water don’t stick to party lines. We believe that everyone deserves to have a quality place to live that ALSO protects our environment. We need to take a comprehensive approach to integrate land and water planning in a way that provides for an adequate and dependable supply of clean water. There’s also a huge need for housing stock in Montana right now, and we believe there’s a way to do it inclusively and sustainably for the long term.
- Terminology is important but malleable. “Affordable.” “Sustainable.” “Attainable.” It all can mean the same thing, but some terms work better than others. We’re looking to other partner organizations working in these areas and often following their lead on terminology, but in general, MEIC is looking for solutions that will benefit Montanans in the long term. This means promoting policies that prioritize high quality housing with energy efficiency standards, access to existing public infrastructure (water and sewer), and bikeable/walkable communities. Affordable for the long term means creating sustainable communities and homes for all, not just simply building more structures.
- We can’t forget environmental protections. While growth may be inevitable, urban sprawl is not. Rampant development of productive agricultural lands into subdivisions that are dependent on individual wells and septic systems is not sustainable. We want development to occur near towns with systems in place to regularly monitor water quality and quantity to protect individual homeowners and the environment. We also don’t want to see development in environmentally sensitive or dangerous areas like floodplains or wildfire prone areas. The more we spread out, the more we infringe on the natural systems and the wildlife. Let’s stay in our lane.
While there is still much to learn, we’re already involved in two crucial, ongoing conversations.
Governor’s Housing Task Force
On July 14, 2022, Gov. Greg Gianforte appointed a 26-member task force to address the emerging issue of affordable housing in Montana. Montana Department of Environmental Quality Director Chris Dorrington is the group’s chair, and the committee consists of four subtask groups – Economics, Regulatory & Permitting, Construction, and Local Issues. Members of the task force include representatives from the public and private sectors. You can view a full list of members by visiting https://bit.ly/MontanaHousingTaskForce. The group is working quickly to develop draft recommendations to provide to the Governor’s office by October 15.
DNRC Comprehensive Water Review
With the 50th anniversary of the Montana Water Use Act, the law which largely determines the use and distribution of water in Montana, the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) launched a stakeholder-driven comprehensive review of water rights and administration. Two stakeholder working groups are focused on determining whether the current set of regulations are adequate to meet future water policy objectives and needs. One of these groups, “Changes, Mitigation and Exceptions,” is looking at water rights challenges associated with development, especially in basins that are closed to any new surface water appropriations. Visit the website for more information and meeting schedules: www.comprehensivewaterreview.mtdnrc.gov
Some of the recommendations from these groups are likely to result in legislation or policy changes. We’re attending the meetings and intend to be involved in any legislation that impacts clean air, clean water, or a sustainable future.
We would love to hear from you with questions, concerns, and ideas to help us address the challenges and build a more sustainable future. Please be in touch.
Read the full 1975 project on our website: www.meic.org/montana-land-development
This article was published in the September 2022 issue of Down To Earth.