In my travels across the West, the dramatic reversal of growth and development in just about every town, city, and state where we work is remarkable. The boom has become a bust.
As I witness the changed economic landscape, a Teddy Roosevelt quote comes to mind. “In any moment of decision the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.” This is a moment in our history where leadership is being tested and redefined in all areas — including conservation.
At the Sonoran Institute, we see this time as a serendipitous opportunity to become more proactive in our efforts to shape the future of the West — promoting sustainable communities, protecting open spaces, and preserving our vital natural resources.
Fortunately, others also are choosing to lead in these challenging times. Recent actions by the State of Montana deserve our attention and appreciation. Through its Legislature, the state has taken some positive steps in responding to public demand for smart growth policies.
Ten years ago, a small group of citizens concerned about the growing impact of poorly planned growth created the Montana Smart Growth Coalition to help preserve the high quality of life in the state. The Coalition, now with over 40 member groups, advocates for laws and regulations that will lead to sustainable, affordable, and attractive community growth patterns while also protecting open spaces in a rapidly developing Montana. Their passion, commitment, and hard work have paid off.
Tim Davis, director of the Sonoran Institute Montana Smart Growth Coalition, this year reports one of the most successful legislative sessions yet for passing new laws aimed at helping Montana counties and communities grow in a smarter way. The Montana Legislature enacted seven new smart growth statutes, with the “flagship” law called the Omnibus Land Use Modernization Act.
“The Omnibus Act will make smart growth in Montana dramatically easier for counties and communities by modernizing the state’s zoning laws,” says Davis. “Updating the 1930s era statutes will allow for more flexible zoning, which will lead to innovation in community and neighborhood development.”
The Act will improve the public notice process for development proposals and zoning changes, opening the door for more public participation. The Act also allows counties to use “interim zoning” as an effective tool to give communities the time they need to plan for unexpected growth.
“How we achieved passage of the Act was almost as important as the laws it will change,” says Davis. “It was a hard fight and at times things got a little ugly, particularly towards the end of the session. But we were successful in reaching across party lines to build a strong political consensus in favor of the Act. Remarkably, we were able to win a 70 percent favorable vote margin in both the Montana Senate and House of Representatives. Montanans of all political stripes have come to realize that if we are going to protect those things that make Montana special, we have to work together.”
Many diverse organizations joined the Coalition in support of the Omnibus Land Use Modernization Act, including the Montana Association of Counties, the Montana League of Cities and Towns, the Montana Association of Realtors, the Montana Building and Industry Association, and the Montana Association of Planners.
Two additional smart growth bills worth noting are:
HB 402 – This bill removes the expiration date for the Montana Land Banking program for state trust lands, and increases the amount of state land that can be part of the program. It is a critical part of the state’s efforts to acquire Plum Creek lands. The Sonoran Institute strongly supported HB 402, which also will help the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation enhance the state lands portfolio to include more public access, consolidate ownership, and make it easier to protect habitat.
HB 674 – This bill authorizes the state to issue bonds for $21 million to help purchase Plum Creek lands as part of the sale of 300,000 acres of those lands to the state, federal government and conservation buyers.
This year’s success was particularly gratifying since the Montana Smart Growth Coalition is celebrating its 10th anniversary. The Montana Legislature’s wide-ranging actions on smart growth laws reinforce the purpose and the effectiveness of the Coalition. I am hopeful that others will follow Montana’s lead.
Guest writer Luther Propst is the Executive Director of the Sonoran Institute, which originally published this article as a May 2009 “Western Dispatch.”
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