Montana can either seize its destiny or succumb to sprawl
Bozeman Daily Chronicle
Monday, Sept. 8, 2003
By Thomas Hylton
On Thursday, advocates of traditional towns throughout the state will gather in Bozeman for the annual Montana Downtown Forum. I haven´t seen the agenda, but I´m sure it will be filled with speakers and discussion groups examining ways to preserve and enhance thriving downtowns.
As a lifelong resident of a state that has few thriving downtowns left, I can tell Montanans what not to do. Don´t let developers build anything, anywhere, because growth on the urban fringe and in the countryside inevitably sucks the life out of downtowns and the neighborhoods surrounding them.
During the last 50 years, cities in my native Pennsylvania have lost more people than currently live in the entire state of Montana. Talk about ghost towns: Philadelphia alone has 20,000 vacant buildings and another 30,000 vacant lots where buildings used to be.
Although Pennsylvania has enjoyed very little population growth in recent decades, it has consumed enormous quantities of land. Between 1982 and 1997, for example, my state grew by 1.4 percent in population but consumed an astonishing 41 percent more land to do it.
Gorgeous Pennsylvania farmland has been debased into a hodgepodge of housing subdivisions, strip malls, and office buildings scattered across the landscape. Vacant storefronts line the main streets of scores of Pennsylvania towns, big and small.
All this has been done in the name of freedom. Let people do anything they want with their land, we´ve said. Let them live anywhere they want. In fact, let government pay for the new infrastructure to help them do it.
If the erosion of our towns and countryside had happened all at once, of course, there would have been a revolution. But it didn´t happen all at once. It happened slowly, steadily, in bits and pieces. We got used to it.
In recent decades, Gallatin County has been riding the crest of a development boom. With breathtaking scenery and enough room to fit two Rhode Islands within its borders, the county has attracted thousands of traffic-weary easterners and Californians, doubling its population since 1970.
Unfortunately, much of this development has occurred on large lots in Gallatin´s rural areas, claiming a growing share of the county´s population. Even Bozeman´s growth is consuming big chunks of open space; in the last decade, Bozeman has annexed nearly a half-acre of land for every man, woman and child coming into the city.
Montanans recognize the dangers of this rapid growth. Even in the Big Sky country, it doesn´t take a lot of poorly designed development to wreck the vast landscapes which have attracted people to Montana in the first place. But as in Pennsylvania, there´s a lot more talking than doing.
Earlier this year, Gallatin County adopted an enlightened, if somewhat vague, growth policy. The policy calls for a coherent pattern of land use. Compact development is encouraged to use land efficiently, avoid sprawl, and preserve open space. That´s good policy. Now that policy needs to be implemented with countywide zoning.
There´s been hopeful talk about conservation easements, which involve paying landowners to place deed restrictions on their acreage to keep it as open space. This strategy has its limitations, however, the biggest of which is cost. Pennsylvania has the largest farmland easement program in the nation, committing more than $525 million during the last 15 years to permanently preserve 255,000 acres of farmland. That seems impressive, until you realize the land saved is just 4 percent of Pennsylvania´s existing farm base. At the current purchase rate, it would take more than two centuries to protect all the land that needs to be saved. Pennsylvania doesn´t have that kind of time, and neither does Montana.
It´s not an influx of new residents that will ruin Gallatin County. It´s an influx of new residents addicted to a lifestyle revolving around big housing lots, a separation of land uses, and driving for every activity.
Gallatin County can preserve its towns and countryside, even with major population growth, if the vast majority of its new buildings are located in existing towns that mix housing, stores, and offices in close proximity. That´s the way Bozeman grew historically, and that´s the way it should grow in the future. Bozeman has an enormous capacity for that kind of growth; in fact, you could just about fit Paris inside its official planning area.
Pennsylvania will revive its cities, but it will take a generation or more. Much of its countryside may be gone forever. Montana, on the other hand, still has the opportunity to seize its destiny rather than succumb to sprawl. Gallatin County is particularly favored in this regard. Because it is such a magnet for development, it has the leverage to enforce high standards.
What´s needed is not new laws, but the willpower to use existing laws while there´s still time.