By Ann Schwend
A quick scan of the bill draft requests for the upcoming 2023 Legislative Session and a glance into our crystal ball predict the session will be chock-full of bills that will touch on a variety of land use, water policy, and affordable housing issues. In short, sustainable communities, or how we live and how we develop new places for people to live, promises to provide lively discussion among the legislative crowd.
The ability to find (and keep) affordable housing in Montana’s growing communities is a top priority for many Montanans. The Governor’s Housing Task Force has several recommendations that are likely to result in legislation. While some of the recommendations would result in poor planning decisions through a top-down approach (see article on pg. 22), many of its recommendations are good, such as developing ways to leverage or generate funding for affordable housing. For example, the Housing Montana Fund is a trust fund that was set up in 1999 but has never had a consistent funding stream. Fully supporting the Housing Montana Fund would help leverage existing federal funding from programs such as the federal Housing Trust, which affordable housing advocates rely on to develop projects. Other potential funding proposals include expansion of the Multifamily Coal Trust Homes Program and adding a state-based low income housing tax credit that provides additional incentives for the private sector to invest in diverse housing options for communities.
Land Use Planning
MEIC expects to see at least one bill related to the work that the Comprehensive Land Use working group is drafting. Led by the League of Cities and Towns with representatives from the Local Government Interim Committee, builders, realtors, and others, this group has been reviewing Montana’s planning laws for the last few years. It is currently working on a proposal to reform Montana’s land use laws so that Comprehensive Plans and Growth Policies are more relevant, with subdivision and zoning review becoming secondary or administrative in nature. The thinking goes: If there is a more robust public planning process up front, then communities will have already identified where growth is appropriate, and subdivision and zoning review will not be as controversial. If implemented correctly, this could be a much-needed and sweeping reform to our current planning structure.
At this point, we aren’t seeing many water policy items being proposed, with the exception of a bill from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC) and associated working group that will clean up the water rights permitting and application processes. This may be a step in the right direction, as DNRC begins to address public water systems with the intent of reducing reliance on individual exempt wells, especially in over-appropriated or closed basins. While there was hope was that the group would make progress in addressing the exempt well statute, it appears that DNRC does not intend to address the issue until after the session (though there are rumors about a bill that could worsen the problem).
As always, we will do our best to protect our right to a clean and healthful environment during the session, while also embracing planning reforms that will lead to sustainable homes and communities for all Montanans.
This article was published in the Dec. 2022 issue of Down To Earth.