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Smart Growth planning goes statewide

Spreading smart growth

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It’s no secret that many regions of Montana are experiencing unprecedented growth, much of which is occurring without any guidance or oversight of its social, environmental or fiscal impact on communities. But a report issued in Helena this week looks at what changes can be made to Montana’s land use and planning laws to help local municipalities better manage and pay for that growth, in ways that also protect the environment and preserve the unique character of communities.

The report is the result of a one-year study by the Chicago-based American Planning Association (APA) commissioned by the Montana Smart Growth Coalition (MSGC), a coalition of 27 groups that deal with land use, planning, affordable housing and transportation issues.

The APA report, the first and most comprehensive of its kind in Montana, includes 130 pages of analysis and 29 substantive recommendations for clarifying or amending state law. The study found that while a lot of creative and thoughtful efforts are underway by state government and local municipalities to manage growth, many sections of law remain confusing, conflicting and do not always promote smart growth in practice.

The APA report does not recommend a widespread overhaul of Montana’s planning and land use laws, but rather attempts to clarify or update state laws, many of which date back to the 1920s and 1930s.

“The state doesn’t explicitly provide a lot of tools for communities to use,” says MSGC Executive Director Tim Davis. “[APA] came in and said, ‘We should institute these practices. These are suggestions that have worked in other places. They would work in Montana.’”

Montana has no statewide mandate that municipalities adopt growth management plans, although some, like Missoula County, have done so voluntarily. If municipalities have a planning board in place, they are required to adopt a growth plan, though Davis says implementation of growth policies is a problem, since state law does not explicitly mandate it. For example, Lewis and Clark County spent more than two years preparing its growth policy, which was adopted in December, but no law forces the county to abide by it.

The APA report also recommends eliminating conflicting language in the law. For example, there are at least four separate sections of law that address subdivision review, which can be confusing and time-consuming for developers.

“If we can adapt and make things more efficient, we can grow much more intelligently,” says Davis. “Right now we’re at a place where we can change things before it gets completely out of hand. But in some parts of Montana like the Bitterroot, the Flathead and Gallatin valleys, we’ve got to make some changes soon.”

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