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By Ann Schwend

With affordable housing at the top of everyone’s minds, subdivision review, zoning, and tax rebates were some of the first bills out of the chute at the beginning of the whirlwind 2023 Legislative Session. Bills to “cut red tape,” skip government review and public involvement, increase density, or reduce taxes have been primary themes so far. Here are the good, the bad, and the ugly land use and community-related bills for the first half of the session. 

Subdivision Review

Potentially the most significant and positive bill of the past several sessions dealing with land use and sustainable communities is SB 382 (Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus), the Land Use Planning Act. This bill is the result of several years of collaboration led by the Montana League of Cities and Towns. It is a complete rewrite of the process for developing comprehensive growth and planning policies. The legislation would create a robust public participation process during the development phase and is based on extensive data on impacts to natural resources, potential hazards, population projections, and future housing needs. 

The comprehensive plan will identify the type of growth and appropriate locations that the community envisions, then enact subdivision and zoning policies that will help guide and direct future growth. This proactive approach is a widely accepted, best-practice form of planning in other states and is a much-needed change to Montana’s current planning methods. This model will be required for the fastest-growing communities in the state (cities with a population of over 5,000 residents and located in a county with over 70,000), while smaller municipalities and counties can opt-in to this new planning method. SB 382 passed the Senate with overwhelming support and is now headed to the House. 

Landing at the top of the list of bad bills this session is SB 152 (Sen. Forest Mandeville, R-Columbus). This bill would result in more sprawl because it would set a new trigger date to determine whether a subdivision is a major, subsequent minor, or minor subdivision. The bill changes the trigger date from 1973 to 2003 to determine the level of review required for new developments. All minor subdivisions in that 30-year timespan are now eligible to be split further into another five lots without an environmental assessment or a public hearing, among other things. Also high on the list of bad bills is SB 158 (Sen. Jason Ellsworth, R-Hamilton), which would allow developers to evade the subdivision review process by allowing lots to be split through the much-abused family transfer exemption if the lots are five acres or larger in existing subdivisions, exempting these parcels from the standard subdivision review process. This will likely result in piecemeal development in existing subdivisions that avoid environmental and public review.

Another problematic bill, HB 211 (Rep. Larry Brewster, R-Billings), would allow local governments to allow developers to present new information at a public hearing on a subdivision and on which the public has never had an opportunity to review or comment, without requiring a new opportunity for the public to review and provide input on the new information.  This bill infringes on the public’s right to know and participate by reducing when subsequent hearings would potentially be required. 

Unfortunately, SB 152, SB 158, and HB 211 have been transmitted to the House.

The lead contender in the “ugly” category is SB 240 (Sen. Jason Small, R-Busby), which would exempt certain subdivisions from having to undergo environmental review entirely. While SB 240 has passed the Senate and has been transmitted, most of the worst bills related to environmental and sanitation review in the subdivision process have thankfully been tabled.   

Finally the “worst makeover” award goes to SB 379 (Rep. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls), which debuted as a bill prohibiting counties from zoning for minimum lot sizes. While this idea was initially tabled in committee, it was subsequently resurrected. The minimum lot size changes were stripped from the bill, and a collection of municipal zoning bills that target increased density as well as broadening the family transfer exemption were amended into the bill in the frantic moments before transmittal. Thankfully, the terrible section expanding the family transfer exemption was amended out of the bill before it was transmitted. This exercise proves once again that we can never be certain how or when a bill could be amended. 


Affordable Housing

Several early ideas tried to address the affordable, attainable, or workforce housing conundrum, especially through property tax or income tax relief for homeowners: HB 318 (Rep. SJ Howell D-Missoula), HB 370 (Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish), and HB 416 (Rep. Jim Hamilton, D-Bozeman). Unfortunately, these were all tabled in committee. 

SB 15 (Sen. Shannon O’Brien, D-Missoula) would have provided some much-needed assistance for low-to-moderate income homeowners and renters, but sadly did not make it across the transmittal line. Rep. George Nikolakakos (R-Great Falls) proposed a pair of bills to increase public notice and rights for mobile home park tenants (HB 428 & HB 429) to create resident-owned cooperatives for mobile home parks, but neither of these bills made it out of committee. 

The good news is that HB 246 (Rep. Scot Kerns, R-Great Falls) passed the House. It would define and codify “tiny dwelling units’’ so that they won’t be discriminated against in municipal zoning. HB 546 (Rep. Dave Fern, D-Whitefish) also has some momentum, which is good because the bill provides more funding for the Coal Trust Fund Multifamily Homes Program. HB 574 (Rep Kim Abbott, D-Missoula) would put $500 million into a Workforce Housing Trust Fund and will hopefully be supported by both sides of the aisle. There are several other funding bills waiting in the wings, and we are looking forward to the second half of the session and additional bills to provide much-needed funding for affordable housing opportunities.


This article was published in the March 2023 issue of Down To Earth. 

Read the full issue here.


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