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The Missoula City Council rolled out a proposal Monday night to change the definition of agricultural lands within city limits and to tweak subdivision rules, bringing them into step with state and county regulations. Currently, Missoula County defines agricultural land by its potential to grow food, basing that conclusion on soil type. But within the Missoula city limits, neither soil evaluations nor a property’s overall farming potential factor in when designating agricultural land. In the city, that designation comes solely from whether or not the property is currently used for growing food. Unifying the city and county definitions of agriculture is the first step to better land management, said Councilman Dave Strohmaier. The second step, he said, is “actually looking at potential mitigating measures for loss of agricultural land.” Because, he said, “once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

City Council Proposes Changing Definition of Agricultural Land

The Missoula City Council rolled out a proposal Monday night to change the definition of agricultural lands within city limits and to tweak subdivision rules, bringing them into step with state and county regulations.

Currently, Missoula County defines agricultural land by its potential to grow food, basing that conclusion on soil type. But within the Missoula city limits, neither soil evaluations nor a property’s overall farming potential factor in when designating agricultural land. In the city, that designation comes solely from whether or not the property is currently used for growing food.

Unifying the city and county definitions of agriculture is the first step to better land management, said Councilman Dave Strohmaier. The second step, he said, is “actually looking at potential mitigating measures for loss of agricultural land.” Because, he said, “once they’re gone, they’re gone.”

“The potential for future action is significant,” Strohmaier said. “The way to get at that objective is through soil types.”

Many local farmers and consumers are concerned that if the city doesn’t step up to protect farmlands from development Missoula will become further entrenched in a food system that ships from distant regions, instead of depending on local producers. Without a new system to protect local growers, farmland will continue losing out to more lucrative real estate development, said Josh Slotnick head of Garden City Harvest and director of the University of Montana’s PEAS Farm.

“It’s a gold rush. It will all be gone,” Slotnick said. “We’re almost there now.”

While Slotnick acknowledged that this move would be a step in the right direction, as it stands now, even Missoula County’s soil-based approach to evaluating agricultural lands has yet to win out against a developer’s request, Slotnick said.

“With the county definition, there’s no teeth,” he said.

But, as it stands now, if the county deems a property agriculturally viable it has a number of ways to mitigate harm, said Mary McCrea, senior planner for the Office of Planning and Grants. While “it would be pretty unusual” to turn down a subdivision solely on the basis of agricultural viability, it is one factor of many planners look at before approving developments. Clustering homes close together or designating a portion of the lot as a “no build zone” are ways to lesson the strain on agricultural lands, McCrea said.

So a new definition for the city of Missoula may be a good tool to manage Missoula’s breakneck growth, Strohmaier said.

Other changes to the current subdivision regulations include encouraging construction of public roads instead of private and requiring they be paved to cut back on air quality problems, said Laval Means from the City of Missoula’s Planning Department. If the proposed rules are approved, lots smaller than 20,000 square feet will be required to connect to public sewer and water systems and subdivisions sidewalks will have to conform to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The council scheduled a public hearing to discuss the revised subdivision regulations and Missoula’s definition of agriculture for June 25.

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