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There are many unknowns about how the coronavirus pandemic will transform our nation, but we can easily predict one outcome for Bozeman: growth.

In contrast to the quiet vacancy of spring, downtown Bozeman seems busier than ever. Last month the Gallatin Association of Realtors reported a 100% increase in pending Bozeman home sales compared to July of last year. In July Yellowstone National Park saw more visitors than in July of 2019—even without international tourists.

A wave of newcomers is arriving to escape the virus hotspots and crowded urban areas—and who can blame them? Our wide-open spaces, abundant outdoor recreation, safe communities, top-notch schools and thriving economy make this a phenomenal place to visit and live, pandemic or not.

This growth is nothing new. Recent research from Headwaters Economics found that Gallatin County’s home development over the last 30 years accounted for more than 1 in 7 new homes built in Montana. More than half of new home development in Gallatin County occurred on large lots outside of towns, gobbling up 95,860 acres of open space. Demand for housing pushes up costs: The average Gallatin County homeowner spends 44% of their wages on a mortgage.

Whether newcomers arrive seeking economic opportunity or to escape COVID or climate change—and whether we like it or not—growth is inevitable. Since it is certain and predictable, we must leverage the benefits of growth (like economic opportunity and diversity) while minimizing and anticipating the negative impacts (like crowding, housing affordability, and loss of open space). How do we do that?

Fortunately, we live in a community with dozens of programs and organizations working hard to help us grow thoughtfully.

The Gallatin Valley Land Trust, Southwest Montana Bike Association, and others are continually building new trails, helping disperse users and ensuring we continue to have access to world-class outdoor recreation. These front-country trails close to town are preferable to backcountry trails in sensitive grizzly and elk habitat and help ensure more people can access trails for physical and mental health—especially important during the pandemic.

Gallatin County’s Open Space program—in concert with nonprofit land trusts—is a regional leader and has already conserved tens of thousands of acres of prime agricultural soil, river corridors, and wildlife habitat, thanks to visionary landowners.

Organizations like HRDC, in partnership with the city of Bozeman and its new Community Housing Action Plan, are working diligently and creatively to help alleviate housing affordability challenges.

Nearly all of our local and regional planning documents articulate goals that emphasize new growth near developed areas and conservation of agricultural land and wildlife habitat. For example, Bozeman’s draft community plan—now open for public input—identifies concrete actions toward balancing growth. The “Triangle Community Plan,” recently adopted by Bozeman, Belgrade and Gallatin County, encourages compact, contiguous development.

However, if we want to protect what makes our community unique in the face of inevitable growth, we can’t stop there. Elected leaders need to take the next step to transform those plans into regulations—such as zoning, subdivision standards and transportation policies. Living in one of the fastest-growing places in the nation, elected officials shouldn’t be afraid to use every tool available—even when decisions are unpopular.

Many individuals, groups, and landowners are trying their best to engage meaningfully and deliberately to help steer our inevitable growth, but the work is difficult and the successes still too few. The responsibility for thoughtful growth is all of ours. Vote, volunteer for a planning board, contribute to the land trust, join a collaborative, weigh in on community plans, and support elected officials who aren’t afraid to take a tough stance.

And to all of you who show up: thank you.

Kelly Pohl, a Bozeman native, is policy and communications director at Headwaters Economics.

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