Population growth and land development in Bozeman and Gallatin County are in a crisis, a time of intense difficulty and struggle requiring “game-changing” decisions to be made by local leaders.

Local cost of living, fueled by huge spikes in housing costs, has increased so much that staying afloat in Bozeman is becoming a tenable prospect only for those whose earnings are double or triple the average amount actually earned by locals. To afford the median price of new housing in Bozeman requires more than two times the income median household income of Bozemanites.

The proliferation of high-cost housing in downtown Bozeman and near-downtown neighborhoods is matched by the continual sprawl of costly housing in subdivisions sprouting in the hinterlands of the county. The overall pattern of growth and development in Gallatin County defies description, because it is happening everywhere at once in a disorderly frenzy, with the price, pace, quality, and location of new housing decided upon by land speculators and developers, not by wise land use principles.

What’s more, each year we sacrifice cherished agricultural lands and befoul soil, air and water to feed the devouring monster of growth. As if this weren’t enough, we are continually asked to maintain the monster that destroys our quality of life by paying for infrastructure projects it needs to survive: new and expanded police, fire, and criminal justice services; expanded water and sewer facilities; new parks; new schools; and new and expanded roads.

In our current crisis, the natural environment is carved up and degraded by sprawl, housing prices go up, overall cost of living increases, longtime residents feel disorientation and loss, while new development opens its arms to wealthier newcomers lacking an understanding of the historic character and quality of life of their new home.

This “model” for growth is actually a model for the death of one community—the historic community made of the blood and sweat of locals—to make way for a new community that pleases developers but disrespects the human and natural resources it profits from.

We can no longer shrug our shoulders and call this destruction “the price of progress.” This is not progress, it is a crisis, and, like all crises, it results from the way we think about ourselves and our world. To fix this crisis takes a fundamental and dramatic shift of thought. It cannot be fixed by doing little tweaks to subdivision regulations. We cannot solve the crisis merely by requiring new subdivisions to recycle gray water, xeriscape or reduce lot sizes.

This crisis will be fixed by refusing to follow the train of thought that has led us here. By that I mean, we can no longer follow so-called “market” thinking that leaves control of growth and development to financial interests, because these interests have gotten us here, to the crisis. To continue to allow “markets” to decide our future will only extend the crisis further.

Fortunately, we have the legal tools right now to end the crisis, and these tools are in the hands of the Gallatin County Commission, the most powerful political board in our area. The county commission can lead us out of the crisis by taking control of the amount, location, cost and environmental quality of new development.

To control the amount of growth, the county commission should place an annual cap on the total number of new housing starts allowed on county land. The cap should be indexed to a “sustainable” rate of population growth, dramatically lower than our current rate of more than 4%. Further, the commission should steer the location of new housing by allowing only one subdivision to be built out at a time.

To curb speculation that only drives up housing costs, the county should enact transfer taxes on property sold after less than six years of continuing ownership. To further provide housing affordability, the county should adopt inclusionary zoning requiring new subdivisions to provide a certain percentage of units attainable to median earners. Finally, the county should require new subdivisions to pass an environmental quality test, proving that they either improve the natural environment or are neutral in their impacts on it.

These game-changing restrictions should start with the county before being adopted by the city, because if they were enacted by the city first, they would likely result in increased sprawl, with development fleeing the city for the more permissive county “market.” After all, the purpose of the restrictions is to bring the current growth and development crisis to a halt—and to cause the “market” to serve the best interests of people and the environment.

Steve Kirchhoff is Bozeman’s former mayor.