Perhaps no issue cleaves the candidates for Missoula County commissioner cleaner than that of agricultural land and the need to preserve it.
To Republican challenger Mark Brady, it’s a non-issue.
He cites western Montana’s short growing season and paucity of processing plants.
“There is more than enough land to govern growing our own food,” Brady said in a recent interview.
His opponent, incumbent Jean Curtiss, disagrees.
“I don’t know if it’s a critical issue in this election, but it’s an important discussion in the community, for sure,” she said. “I think it’s important to think about what if no trucks came in for a few days. What would we do?”
The winner on Nov. 6 will be in charge, along with commissioners Bill Carey and Michele Landquist, as a policy is hashed out to mitigate subdivisions for the loss of agricultural lands.
Four locally generated reports have been compiled in recent years to address the issue, by the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, the Missoula Organization of Realtors/Missoula Building Industry Association, the University of Montana Land Use Clinic and the county’s Open Lands Committee.
In August, the four reports were presented at a public forum to the Missoula Consolidated Planning Board, which also received comments and suggestions.
“We’ve asked the planning board to say, from that community meeting, what things do you see that we should have further discussion on?” said Curtiss.
A special planning board hearing is slated for Oct. 16. Rural Initiatives staff will summarize input received so far and present a series of options the board might consider in pursuing an agricultural policy.
Loss of agricultural land has long been a checkoff item in subdivision review.
“But we don’t have a policy saying if you’re going to develop that, here’s what you need to do to mitigate,” Curtiss said. “So that’s what we’ll be looking for, to see if there’s something that makes sense, and we’ll be weighing the things that people have done in other communities.”
Under discussion are ideas such as on-site easements and open space requirements, transfer of development rights and mitigation fees in lieu of development.
Brady is skeptical.
“I’m troubled by the way people are bringing this up because they feel they get to control other people’s property, like there’s a catastrophe waiting right around the corner,” he said.
Missoula County relies on its private property for tax generation, yet only 15 percent of the county is owned privately, Brady said. “If you take all of (those acres) out by putting them into agricultural, open lands, conservation easements or whatever, you have no tax base whatsoever.”
He agreed that there’s more to consider than the financial aspects.
“But there has been a study done that says we have more than enough land,” said Brady, “and nobody has presented me with the argument that there’s an immediate need for land, or that there’s even a future need for that land because something apocalyptic is going to happen.”
But Curtiss said it’s an important vetting process and the responsibility of the county commission to oversee.
“Those of us who have lived in the area for a long time remember when we did provide a lot of our own food,” she said. “I always think about Hughes Gardens (in Hellgate Canyon), because that’s where you stopped and got things. There’s a lot of stuff built on that garden space now.”
But problems in protecting farmland legally, ethically and effectively are many, she agreed.
For example, transfer of development rights, or TDRs, can be one-sided propositions. Many farmers consider the option to develop their land their retirement plan. A TDR program would allow landowners to transfer the right to develop one parcel of land to a different parcel in the county.
Trouble is, Curtiss said, everybody wants to be the one who transfers and nobody wants to be the receiver.
“None of it’s easy,” she allowed. “The challenge to me is how do we continue to provide opportunities to feed ourselves, and how do you balance that with people who own their ag land and either don’t want to continue farming, are too old to continue farming, or their children don’t want to continue farming, and yet that farm is their 401(k)?”
Brady foresees regulation problems in the push toward locally grown products.
“At some point in this farm-to-truck thing, some attorney’s going to push it to the point, in order to protect it, that they say there’s some bad stuff that came off this unzoned, unregulated, unsupervised family garden that has now gone to public consumption,” he said.
Sure, the Garden City used to grow everything it needed, Brady added. But that was last century.
“We used to do a lot of things on our own because you couldn’t depend on anything else,” he said. “Now it’s cheaper, it’s more efficient and faster to buy it.”
He recognizes there are people who want to grow their own food.
“But they should do what all the others had to do in the 1900s. They had to buy the land and then they got to work the land,” Brady said. “Expecting somebody to give that land to you is what I have a problem with.”
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.