Bozeman Growth

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It’s hard to argue with the math.

Buoyed by the region's booming economy and widely lauded quality of life, Gallatin County pushed past the 100,000-resident mark for the first time last year. Since 1990, annual population growth in the Bozeman area has averaged 2.8 percent — doubling the number of souls in the region in only a quarter century.

At that rate, thanks to the dynamics of exponential growth, the next decade will see 32,000 new residents in the county — a number slightly larger than the population of Helena. By the time children born today graduate from high school in 2034, the county could hold 165,000 people, a majority of the new arrivals likely to settle alongside those of us already in the Gallatin Valley.

In a place where the Big Sky take on the American Dream has long focused on the freedom to stake a claim amid broad horizons, there's perhaps no greater source of collective angst than those numbers and their implications. Bozeman’s growth has gone hand-in-hand with prosperity, certainly, but has also brought change — not all of it entirely welcome.

Steve Kirchhoff, a former Bozeman mayor and ardent preservationist, speaks for many of the valley’s residents when he worries about the impact of sprawling development and its attendant “suburban schlock."

“I love this place,” he said, "and, to me, it’s getting sold out.”

“It’s a squandering, basically, of our heritage that we did nothing to earn,” he added. “We lucked into this place, and we’re basically soiling it."

“Somebody should hit a pause button,” he said.

Sp’iled, I reckon

In our Big Sky Country, those sentiments aren’t new. They’re at least as old, in fact, as Montana’s Big Sky moniker itself, a nickname taken from the title of A.B. Guthrie Jr.’s 1947 novel chronicling the mountain man-era west.

“It’s all sp’iled, I reckon, Dick. The whole caboodle,” one of Guthrie’s protagonists laments in the book's final pages, as the days of bountiful beaver and buffalo come to an over-hunted close.

“I don’t guess we could help it,” his partner responds. "We went to get away and to enj’y ourselves free and easy, but folks was bound to foller.”

"We ain’t seen the end of it yet, Boone,” he adds, "not to what the mountain man does against hisself."

As the Gallatin Valley ponders the impact of another shifting era seven decades later, as onetime cow-town Bozeman finds itself an international destination, recreational mecca and tech-industry hub, it’s hard to put those sentiments out of mind.

Boundless horizons or not, there’s only so much land in our valley. Will we wake up one day to find it spoiled, our open space consumed by piecemeal subdivisions, our governments bankrupted by infrastructure costs, our mountain views smothered by the smog of Huffine Lane traffic jams?

Given Montana’s cherished streak of frontier individualism, do our local government entities — Gallatin County especially — have the political will to take what urban planners call common-sense measures to rein in sprawl? Can our building industry deliver livable neighborhoods even as elbow room gets scarcer — and can those of us with modest incomes afford homes in them if they do?

Can we help it? Or does our very presence here destine us to devastate those things we love most about this last best place, our home?

Ain’t seen the end of it yet

Idle fantasies aside, most land use experts agree that halting development wholesale — building the proverbial wall around Bozeman, and maybe Belgrade — simply isn’t realistic. As much as preservationists like Kirchhoff pine for a pause button, even he admits there’s no freezing growth in its tracks.

“It’s just not in the cards,” said Randy Carpenter, a smart growth advocate with the Bozeman think tank Future West. “We’re just going to continue to grow, because it’s such a great place.”

Even if trying to shut down development entirely was on city or county agendas, Carpenter added, efforts would likely run afoul of landowners’ constitutionally guaranteed property rights.

“You’d end up spending more time in the court system than you would in the planning boards,” he said.

Additionally, limits on new residential development would almost certainly drive up housing prices as new residents continue to stream in, increasing competition in the area's already-tight housing market. More likely than not, restrictions would end up forcing lower-income residents to far-flung communities beyond the reach of local planning jurisdictions.

“We have a constitution — you can’t stop people from coming here and building here,” said Bozeman Mayor Carson Taylor, who took office at the beginning of the year. The city could stop annexing land, he said, "but then you’d end up a little bit like the situation that happened in Boulder (Colorado). Property values go way up, then you can’t maintain a city of socioeconomic diversity and you end up with a different kind of city than anybody, I think, wants."

Taylor did say that he thinks it’s possible to "slow growth so that it doesn’t come in faster than you can handle."

"Let’s do growth right,” he said. "If doing it right slows it down a little bit, that’s not a bad thing."

“We as a community have to figure out how we incorporate new residents in,” said Brian Popiel, chair of the Southwest Montana Building Industry Association.

It is possible to grow “in really unhealthy and destructive ways,” he acknowledged. But, citing the struggles of places like Detroit, he maintained that, “You’re not going to have a positive and dynamic community without growth."

“It has to be there,” Popiel said, "and it’s a choice that we make as to whether or not it becomes positive."

The density arithmetic

Growth may well be inevitable for the valley, but suburban sprawl and its ills may not be. It depends, Carpenter argues, on the public’s willingness to embrace something nearly as antithetical to our Big Sky heritage as sprawl itself — density.

“Getting more homes on fewer acres is going to be the key,” he said. “How we grow is going to make all the difference."

“When everybody comes here and spreads out, there’s no more room to spread out,” he said. “It kind of comes down to math, in the long run.”

Lot sizes

Lots holding Gallatin County’s rural residences average more than 17 times the size of city lots — 4.9 acres versus 0.28 acres, according to a Chronicle analysis of state property data. Even neglecting the impact of higher-density urban housing like apartments and condos, that density differential translates into tens of thousands of acres when multiplied across the thousands of additional households projected over the coming decade.

If the valley sees 15,000 new homes split evenly between those typical rural and urban densities — which roughly matches the fraction of growth inside cities since 1990 — that development would consume 39,000 acres, 95 percent of that at rural densities.

Today's development, tomorrow's growth

Existing development in the Gallatin Valley. City limits are drawn in blue and rural subdivisions, a rough proxy for development, in orange.

Squares represent the land required for 10 years of projected residential growth, or 15,000 homes, for scenarios with half and three-quarters of home development occurring at urban (blue) and rural (orange) density.

Projections are drawn at the same scale as the map and each square is a quarter mile, or 160 acres.

Analysis prepared using data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Montana Cadastral property ownership database. Geographic data sourced from Gallatin County, OpenStreetMap and the Montana State Library.

If three quarters is urban, in contrast, the number is slightly less than than 22,000 acres — a difference of 17,000 acres, roughly the size of Bozeman and Belgrade combined as their boundaries stand today.

Beyond simply preserving open space and agricultural land, smart growth advocates like Carpenter say density also holds the key for the valley’s long-term livability.

For example, he says, denser developments fitting more households on the same acreage promotes affordability by mitigating one of the primary expenses involved in home construction, the cost of land. More compact communities require less driving, reducing traffic and air pollution and tending to make walking and public transit services more feasible, he says.

In a purely fiscal sense, having fewer miles of streets to build and maintain also translates into savings for local governments and their taxpayers. A growth modeling exercise by the MSU School of Architecture, for example, estimates that having development cluster in dense community centers instead of sprawling could avoid 30 miles of costly road construction as the valley grows to a population of 200,000.

“I’m not advising that we go to 99 percent living in town,” Carpenter said. “There will always be people who want to be out in rural areas — there’s nothing wrong with that.”

But, he said: “We need to have an understanding of what the future brings if most of what we have is that sort of development."

Carpenter also argues that denser communities, if designed well, don’t have to compromise on quality of life, and in fact harken back to the traditional.

“I think that we can build really pleasant neighborhoods,” he said, pointing to older districts in existing towns, many platted during the first half of the 20th century.

Those densities range from 2 to 28 units per acre, depending on how many apartment-style dwellings are included in the mix, he said.

"I’m not advocating for high-rises,” he said.

'Whoever has a backhoe'

Promoting a certain measure of density to manage sprawl is hardly a controversial idea in land use circles. In fact, as Carpenter points out, it’s enshrined in formal growth plans adopted by the cities of Bozeman and Belgrade, as well as Gallatin County, the government entity with jurisdiction over developments proposed outside city limits.

Gallatin County’s growth policy, for instance, calls for establishing a “coherent pattern of land use… [that] will not sprawl across the countryside or along major transportation corridors” and cites “compact development” as a way to preserve open space.

However, when it comes down to implementing zoning and other measures intended to curb sprawl, it’s unclear whether the county commission — with many of its rural constituents skeptical of government regulation — is committed to action.

Carpenter, for example, rattles off a list of policies he says make it cheaper to develop in the county, among them not requiring building permits and having generally less restrictive development standards.

He also faults the county for not levying impact fees, as Bozeman does to help recover the costs associated with building infrastructure like roads and fire stations to serve new subdivisions. Because those infrastructure costs then fall on county taxpayers generally, he argues, that policy essentially promotes sprawl by socializing a portion of the costs associated with development.

Carpenter also says he wants to see the county doing more in terms of collaborating with Bozeman and Belgrade governments, taking a regional perspective on land use issues.

“We’ve waited too long, in my opinion, to really coordinate our planning,” he said. “We need to start doing it now."

Kirchhoff was blunter: “I can’t tell that there’s any plan whatsoever for growth in the county,” he said.

“Whoever’s ready to sell and whoever has a backhoe,” he said, "that’s what drives growth.”

“Whoever's ready to sell and whoever has a backhoe, that's what drives growth.”

- Steve Kirchhoff

“We’re probably not as proactive as some people would like us to be,” said County Commissioner Joe Skinner, the body’s chair. “I think we do have to do a better job."

County government, Skinner said, is trying to work with Bozeman officials on issues like coordinating road right of ways and ensuring the city’s future growth isn’t hemmed in by low-density rural developments. He also noted that it’s no sure bet that growth will continue at its historic rates.

County planning director Sean O'Callaghan also said this month that the county is working on updating its growth policy, which dates to 2003, and is also making progress toward creating a planning coordination committee. The coordination committee is a measure recommended by a 2014 planning study, which dryly noted that cooperation between Bozeman, Belgrade and the county "has rarely extended to the area of land use planning."

Regardless, it’s a challenging proposition, Skinner said, for county government to tell landowners what to do with their property.

“It’s just a really difficult policy decision to make,” he said. “It’s just one of those things that’s really hard to do, so you keep putting it off."

The politics of planning

County government has routinely found itself subject to legal and political pressure over efforts at regulating land use in recent years, without necessarily hearing as vigorously from citizens concerned about wise planning as from those worried about their property rights.

Last fall, for example, a developer prevailed in a lawsuit challenging the county commission’s 2014 denial of a 191-lot subdivision proposed near Gallatin Gateway. In that case, a state judge ruled the county didn’t have an adequate basis for blocking the development and levied a $650,000 fine to compensate the developer.

At the same time, Skinner said, public interest in planning appears to have waned since the pre-recession boom. The county planning board, for example, isn’t even able to find enough volunteers to fill all its seats, he said.

Joe Skinner

Joe Skinner is seen in this December 2015 file photo.

Skinner, a moderate Republican currently running for re-election, also had to fend off a primary challenge from staunch conservative Scott Sales during his last re-election campaign in 2010. That challenge came after a term where he had attracted criticism over a push for countywide zoning, according to Chronicle reports from the time.

“We heard very loud and clear from county residents that ‘no we don’t want density zoning,’” Skinner said this month. “It is a culture here that you don’t want government telling you what to do with your land.”

“Philosophically, I don’t think this commission wants to be seen as restrictive to development,” he said.

“Do you not let people develop at a 2-acre density if they’ve got the money to do it?” he asked. “Because government doesn’t want them to?"

Until it's in your backyard

Even inside Bozeman, density is often a contentious issue. Earlier this month for example, neighbors of a three-story condo project proposed in the city's Loyal Garden subdivision inundated city commissioners with letters opposed to the project, initially proposed with 84 units at a density of nearly 23 units per acre.

In letters and public meetings, tens of neighbors described concerns that the project would cause traffic issues, block views and lower their property values.

The somewhat frustrated developer, Jesse Chase, said he was working with residents to address their concerns, but expressed a certain measure of exasperation at the opposition.

“Density is a good thing for a community,” he said. “It’s tough, because we say that, and as soon as it’s in your backyard you’re not a fan."

“It’s a sensitive topic, I realize, density, but we’ve adopted a growth plan,” he added. “We do need density, and we need it inside city limits."

In an inverse of Carpenter’s perspective, local builders have long argued that city policies like its impact fees and new affordable housing requirements tend to push new development out into the less-burdensome county.

“If we don’t want everybody to be out living on ranchettes, then the city is going to have to make some accommodations,” said Popiel.

“I think proactive and thoughtful leadership can present a value proposition to the housing consumer that makes living inside city limits a much better deal than living outside,” he said.

Taylor, Bozeman’s mayor, has said he doesn’t worry “that much” about city regulations pushing growth out into the county.

“Growth in the city continues,” he said. "If it’s slowing down because we’re insisting on a quality of building or a quality of life that we want to maintain in the city, then I think that’s a good thing."

Silver linings

If there’s a silver lining to all this, it’s that the valley's growth does, to some extent, seem to be shifting back into both cities and higher-density unincorporated areas like Four Corners. While the latter decades of the 20th century, the 1970s and '80s in particular, saw a trend toward rural living in the valley, that tide appears to be reversing.

About 70 percent of the population growth the county saw between 1980 and 1990 occurred outside the boundaries of municipalities, for example, but more recent data shows that fraction reversing. For example, 70 percent of the county's growth happened in Bozeman between 2013 and 2014, as the city added 1,800 people.

“We’re seeing a rebound,” Carpenter said. “I think that the market is saying ‘we want to live in town.’"

Still, he said, he wants to see the valley return to the growth patterns of the 1960s, when upwards of 80 percent of growth happened at in-town densities. He’s skeptical that will happen without more deliberate planning efforts.

“We still make it easier and cheaper to grow and develop outside of town,” he said. “As long as that’s true, we’ll never get back to the historic growth patterns that have so many benefits for our community."

For his part, Skinner said he’s optimistic about regulatory changes around exempt wells and septic systems that he thinks are making it harder to do piecemeal development. That ends up providing more of a market-based way to guide growth, he said.

County planning director O'Callaghan also said he’s seeing a shift toward denser subdivisions, even in the county, as developers try to provide more amenities like parks and trails.

“People aren’t interested so much in just putting houses on a piece of property,” he said. "I think developers are really making more of an effort to build a neighborhood."

“People are just realizing that land is pretty valuable,” he said.

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Eric Dietrich can be reached at 406-582-2628 or He is on Twitter at @eidietrich.

“This is a pro-Smith River display, not an anti-mining one.”

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