Sound planning laws will build sustainable communities

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Montana’s explosive popularity is pushing capacity and resources to breaking point. Many communities are packed to capacity, pushing development onto farmland, shoving homes perilously into the interface between nature and cities, and rushing to build near flooding rivers. Climate change is exacerbating these impacts by affecting water supplies (droughts and floods) and increasing the incidence of severe forest fires. We need a variety of affordable housing options to accommodate all Montana residents, but what we do on the landscape and where we choose to grow will be critical in determining the future of Montana communities and the health of our environment.

Looking at our past legislative sessions can help predict what we see for proposed “solutions.” A number of bills were introduced in the 2021 session that would have limited the ability of local communities to adequately plan for their future and protect the things they value. Fortunately, most of these bills were defeated by the Legislative Assembly because they were knee-jerk reactions, poorly thought out and poorly supported. The 2023 session is fast approaching and the problems of housing and urban planning are gaining momentum. We expect to see several proposals on how to reform our land use planning and planning laws. Some of these proposals recommend state-mandated planning approaches, which would undermine local control.

Without a doubt, it’s time to modernize Montana’s land use planning laws. But prescribing remedies without diagnosing all the symptoms will not solve the underlying problems. We must first zoom out and do a thorough analysis of environmental concerns, community infrastructure, and housing needs, and then use that data to inform and implement responsive policies. We must recognize that there is no single solution to a crisis as complex as fair housing in a state as vast and diverse as Montana.

Recently, Governor Gianforte appointed a Housing Task Force to address Montana’s housing crisis. While we’re optimistic about some aspects of the recently released report to the governor, we see some of the same “top-down” elements that were rejected in the 2021 session. If the task force is serious about solving the housing crisis in the Montana, it should empower local leaders and provide incentives that help forward-thinking communities adopt comprehensive, long-term strategies that reward sustainable development within existing urban footprints.

Several of the task force’s recommendations would provide much-needed incentives and funding to take advantage of opportunities, invest in infrastructure, and support public-private partnerships that create diverse housing options for communities. We strongly support the recommended tools to increase financing and affordable housing options and to invest in programs that connect people to homes. While we’re hopeful about these inclusions, we want to make sure that by simply building more homes, we don’t lose sight of protecting our natural resources. Ideally, development should take place at major water and wastewater utilities, not at individual “exempt” wells and septic systems that require more land and are difficult to monitor.

Montana is growing, but let’s not miss the opportunity to be strategic and build long-term communities that are environmentally friendly, affordable, and socially connected. We need strong land use plans and water policies developed through inclusive community processes that assess overall housing needs, the natural resources we need to protect, and future infrastructure to support this growth. Plans should identify locations and strategies to achieve these goals, then adapt local zoning regulations that allow for locally defined appropriate densities.

As has been MEIC’s goal for nearly 50 years, we will continue to work to protect clean air, clean water and a livable climate for Montana. This starts with promoting strong and thoughtful environmental protections, through the use of both incentives and regulations. As we approach the 2023 session, let us think more holistically about development and advocate for bills that facilitate sustainable growth so that we can all live safely, affordably and equitably within our limits. environmental means.

Let’s build communities, not just homes.

Ann Schwend is the Sustainable Community Planning Advocate at the Montana Center for Environmental Information.

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