Growing pains

City still struggling with how to save prime soil



The city of Missoula slated 58 acres of prime agricultural soil for residential development last year. If prime soil continues to disappear at that rate, experts agree that it'll be gone within 60 or 70 years. The dilemma isn't a new one, but a new lawsuit and the recent release of an annual report from the Office of Planning and Grants (OPG) underscores the city's struggle to accommodate new development and protect local agriculture.

Chickasaw Place, a subdivision slated for this bucolic plot west of Tower Street, highlights the city’s struggle to balance development with agriculture. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Chickasaw Place, a subdivision slated for this bucolic plot west of Tower Street, highlights the city’s struggle to balance development with agriculture.

The Orchard Homes Community Association filed suit against the city Aug. 6, alleging that Missoula's City Council made an "arbitrary and capricious" decision when it approved the Chickasaw Place subdivision earlier this year. For the most part, the lawsuit focuses on the city's approval process—whether the public and the Missoula Consolidated Planning Board had an adequate chance to review the plot. But the suit takes up other aspects of the subdivision, as well, including claims that the city didn't address the impact to wildlife and didn't adequately mitigate the impact on local agriculture.

Developer George Lake proposed Chickasaw Place earlier this year as a 9.36-acre subdivision on South Seventh Street West, approximately a quarter mile west of Tower Street. Lake, a longtime resident of the area, initially wanted to develop the land into 30 separate lots. After residents and local agriculture advocates argued that the soil is irreplaceable, the council told Lake that he'd have to set aside three acres of agricultural land to mitigate the impact of his subdivision.

Lake complied. His revised proposal reflected the Missoula Community Food and Agriculture Coalition's (CFAC) request that a rectangular area in the southeast corner be preserved since it held the best of the prime soil. But after hearing from neighbors, the city amended Lake's plan. The final plat reserved the east side of the subdivision for agriculture, but revised the shape and added a single residential lot.

"There was a lot of testimony as to what was going to happen and what effects were going to occur," says Thomas Orr, attorney for the Orchard Homes Community Association. "If they're really trying to mitigate impact, the parcel that they created is certainly not the best design for that. And I think there was plenty of testimony to that effect. Nobody liked it. I'm not even sure the developer liked it."

Yet before 2008, the city didn't consider agriculture at all when developers asked to subdivide their land. The policy shifted in January of that year when the council denied the Sunshine Addition subdivision after CFAC testified that it would consume prime agricultural soil. As a result, the city called on CFAC to review all subdivisions.

"Many times, we have no problem with them," says Neva Hassanein, a member of CFAC's board of directors and a professor at the University of Montana. "But most of the best agricultural land in the county is located in the valley, which is right where we're growing."

On July 29, just eight days before Orchard Homes filed suit against the city, OPG issued the first of its annual updates to the Urban Fringe Development Area. The goal of the update, called the "yearbook," is to track and organize the information the city collects throughout the year, says OPG Director Roger Millar.

"We hope with the yearbook to see what's changing and to see if the policies are achieving the results we want," says Millar.

The yearbook also details the use of agricultural land, and specifically how fast it's disappearing. According to this year's update, some 6,000 acres of prime agricultural soil lies in the Missoula Urban Service Area, the area served by the city sewer system. Of the 6,000 acres, the city has developed 2,191 of them, or about 37 percent. In 2008, the city added another 58 acres, just under 1 percent of the total. If Missoula continues to develop at its current pace, all of the city's prime agricultural land will be gone as soon as 2069, Millar notes.

At the same time, the East Mullan neighborhood, which contains some of the city's best soil, happens to also be one of Missoula's fastest growing areas. According to the yearbook, the city approved 104 new houses in the neighborhood last year.

As a result, the mitigation in Chickasaw Place may become the norm as the city struggles to preserve its dwindling agriculture land.

"When somebody comes in and proposes a subdivision that impacts agricultural soil and water, we look at the impacts, and whether those can be mitigated," says Millar. "In the past, that wasn't a big deal, but in recent years, societal norms are beginning to change. The notion of food security is a relatively new idea."

Millar says OPG plans to develop a policy addressing agriculture in the coming year, a step that pleases Hassanein despite the flaws in the current Chickasaw Place design.

"We're really glad that the City Council and local government are beginning to take agriculture seriously," Hassanein says. "The land is a very precious resource, as precious as the water we drink and the air we breathe. And when it's gone, it's gone."

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