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Montanans gather to brawl the sprawl


Population growth in Montana can’t be stopped, but sprawl can be controlled if people work together to find common interests. That’s the conclusion speakers made at last week’s “Big Sky or Big Sprawl: Montana at the Crossroads” conference in Helena. The meeting, which drew more than 300 people from around the state, was sponsored by the newly formed Smart Growth Coalition.

Over the coming months, the coalition hopes to rework many of the state’s development laws, which are seen by many as being too permissive. But first, organizers hope to expand public understanding of growth-management issues and increase citizen involvement.

Altering the long-standing culture that has encouraged uncontrolled development won’t come overnight, various speakers warned.

“If it were easy, someone would have done it already,” said Stuart Meck, lead investigator for the Chicago-based American Planning Association’s Growing Smart project.

Meck’s group is working with coalition members to review all land use and planning statutes in Montana, as well as all related state-level judicial decisions from the past 20 years. Armed with that data, the coalition will develop community questionnaires, convene focus groups, and interview key players across the state to determine what regulations can reasonably be changed. Coalition leaders say at least some of the proposed reforms will be introduced in the 2001 Legislature. Jeff Gersh, the Oregon-based producer of “Subdivide and Conquer: A Modern Western,” an award-winning documentary on growth, said he believes Montana is ripe for regulatory reform. “I think there’s an amazing amount of support for smart growth alternatives,” he said. “I think we can fix it. Clearly, Montana is on the front lines of the sprawl question.”

But to be successful, he added, “communities must work together.”

While the need for community-based urban and rural planning was a core issue at the conference, participants also grappled with a host of related topics, including transportation, affordable housing, loss of agricultural heritage, and the need to bring developers, bankers, and the real estate industry into the fold. Janet Camel, planning coordinator for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said tribal governments from around the state must also be courted.

But statewide organizers were also told they should be sure the reform cart doesn’t get ahead of the proverbial horse. A high priority now, conference speakers said, should be determining what most people find objectionable about current state and local land-use laws.

“Mobilize as neighbors, not as particular interest groups,” advised longtime Missoula activist Judy Smith. “Who government listens to is mobilized neighbors.”

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