Montana lawmakers got an initial look Wednesday at a major land planning bill that aims to overhaul how development decisions are made in and around Montana’s fast-growing urban areas.
Senate Bill 382 would require additional planning by local governments, rework how and when residents can participate in planning decisions and, supporters say, make it easier to build the housing necessary to accommodate rapid population growth.
The measure, sponsored by Sen. Forrest Mandeville, R-Columbus, was written in large part by Montana League of Cities and Towns Executive Director Kelly Lynch. It’s described by proponents as the outcome of a yearslong collaborative effort to address long-standing concerns about the state’s often-convoluted land use code — including some of the issues raised last year by Gov. Greg Gianforte’s housing task force.
“Essentially, we do things backward in Montana. And so it’s no surprise that our permitting processes take way too long,” Lynch said Wednesday, describing the current system as driven by project-level review instead of proactive planning. “The whole idea behind this is to flip that, so that we do the planning and the public participation up front, we front-load it, then as we get to the permitting and the platting that becomes a very administrative process.”
With housing affordability a top-tier issue for the governor and Montana public following years of rising rents and home prices, Republican and Democratic lawmakers at the Legislature have floated an array of ad hoc zoning reform bills this year that would generally rein in city zoning powers in an effort to promote the construction of new urban housing.
House Bill 337, for example, would force cities to allow development on smaller home lots. Senate Bill 323 would require larger cities to allow duplex, triplex and fourplex-style construction in all residential areas. And House Bill 553 would require local governments to permit accessory dwelling units, or smaller homes built on existing lots.
Supporters of those measures argue that overly burdensome local regulations have discouraged developers from building the homes necessary to keep up with population growth over the past decade, contributing to Montana’s current housing crunch. Those proponents argue that legislative action that forces cities and counties to relax their rules would encourage construction and boost housing supply, eventually giving home sellers and landlords less leverage to maintain high prices.
Local government leaders have opposed those one-off zoning measures, saying many cities are already taking steps toward zoning reform and arguing the Legislature will throw a wrench in their planning efforts if it steps in with top-down mandates. They’ve pointed to Mandeville’s now-unveiled overhaul bill as a comprehensive alternative that will promote housing construction while maintaining local control of land use decisions.
The bill’s language, Lynch said, has been negotiated over a period of years through a workgroup that brought together city and county governments, land use planners, surveyors, the Montana Building Industry Association and the Montana Association of Realtors.
The 48-page SB 382 would require city and county governments in the state’s most-populous counties to expand their proactive planning efforts, producing forward-looking land use plans that inventory existing housing, analyze projected population growth and determine specifically where they’ll allow the construction of enough homes to house future residents.
Those local governments would be required to take specific steps to encourage more housing construction, selecting at least five development-boosting strategies from a menu of 15 options. Those options, many of which parallel proposals included in the ad hoc zoning reform bills, include steps like reducing parking requirements, reducing minimum lot sizes and zoning for higher density near universities and public transit stations.
The bill would also make an explicit effort to shift public participation in land use planning earlier in the process, inviting more public input as growth plans are being written and limiting public comment once specific projects are proposed.
While not described as such by the bill’s supporters, that change would in effect reduce the opportunity residents have to rally not-in-my-backyard-style opposition to subdivisions or buildings when a developer’s proposal meshes with already adopted zoning.
Currently, many proposed developments are subject to votes by elected city and county officials in public meetings regardless of whether they conform with adopted land use goals, a dynamic Lynch said injects unnecessary uncertainty into the development process. Under the process layed out in SB 382, in contrast, proposed projects would generally be approved administratively by a city or county planning director if they’re in “substantial compliance” with adopted regulations and don’t raise unanticipated issues.
The bill would allow an “aggrieved party” to appeal administrative decisions to a planning board, then to a city or county commission and, as a last resort, via a lawsuit filed in state district court.
“We structured this specifically so that it would meet the public’s right to know and participate that we have in the Constitution,” Lynch testified Wednesday.
As introduced, the bill’s provisions would apply by default to counties with at least 70,000 residents as of the 2020 census — Yellowstone, Gallatin, Missoula, Flathead, Gallatin, Cascade, and Lewis and Clark counties — as well as cities and towns in those counties with populations of 5,000 or more. Other local governments would be able to switch to the new planning system on an opt-in basis.
The planning overhaul bill attracted wide-ranging support and some critique as it was heard before the Montana Legislature’s Senate Local Government Committee Wednesday afternoon.
“It requires communities to take responsibility for their growth and do a housing analysis and get their regulations in shape such that their housing needs can be met,” said Sam Sill, a lobbyist for the Montana Association of Realtors.
Other supporters included the state building association, the Montana Association of Planners, the Frontier Institute, University of Montana student government, Americans For Prosperity, Big Sky 55+, Trout Unlimited and the Montana Environmental Information Center.
“One of our biggest concerns environmentally has been that each project is reviewed independently and that it’s a reactive process rather than proactive,” MEIC staffer Ann Schwend said. “This process, this framework, would really provide the tools and the information and the data that are important to understand those impacts on our resources.”
Some market-focused housing advocates said they wanted stronger language in the housing-focused portion of the bill, tightening the menu of development-boosting strategies so they would give city governments a harder shove.
“We’d just like to see some of that criteria tightened up,” said Jake Brown, a lobbyist for Shelter Whitefish.
Opposition was also heard from the Montana Association of Counties and all three Flathead County commissioners, who argued the bill would require them to spend taxpayer dollars on detailed planning efforts that are deeply unpopular with their rural residents.
“This bill doesn’t fit Flathead County. We’re largely rural,” said Flathead County Commissioner Brad Abell. “And our citizens in the county don’t want zoning. If you implement zoning, they’ll hang all three of us in the courthouse yard.”
Mandeville, the bill sponsor, said he is working on amendments that would address housing advocates’ concerns and make the new code opt-in for county governments.
“I think even a lot of the opposition do generally agree with the intent of the bill,” he said.
This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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