May 2019

Governor Steven Bullock

State Capitol


Montana 59620

Re: Sprawl, land use, and growth

Dear Governor Bullock,

        There are, of course, good traditional arguments for letting people do whatever they want where ever they want with land.  But with population growth, which we should cease to be wanting in the US, the concept easiest labeled “greatest societal good” or “greater social good” trumps those arguments.   

       Montana has a sprawl problem from growth.  A sprawl problem means a resource waste problem not just now but forever into the future for many reasons.

       You, of course, already know about problems from sprawl.  The issue then becomes what to do about it.  How can Montana accommodate the growth forced on it from people fleeing over crowded traffic snarled inhumane urban environments for what they believe is relatively untouched Montana?

        Basically, what is needed is comprehensive land use reform which has to be sold to doubters using ideas across a broad range.  In Oregon Senate Bill 100 in 1973 was initiated by Republican Governor Tom Mc Call, and State Senators Hector MacPherson, Ted Hallock, LB Day, and Nancie Fadeley prompted by farmers, growers, and live stock raisers who wanted to conduct their activities without a bunch of residential neighbors complaining about noise, dust, farm vehicle traffic, and odors including, of course, air born pesticide residue.  

          They were also worried about increases in farmland costs based on the speculation that farmland could become housing or commercial development.

         The results of their vision and quest to preserve farm and forest land resulted in statutes or rule writing by commissions attempting to prohibit annexations and development of non contiguous land to cities.  The extension of city services outside city limits was prohibited.  Urban growth boundaries were formed defining what land could eventually be annexed and developed and what couldn’t.

         What was missing then and what is still missing now is the establishment of minimum population densities of say 3000 people per square mile before annexations can occur.  The density standard for annexations to occur would increase according to the size of the city.  Density standards would force infill projects, greater density of housing per acre, more 2,3, and 4 story buildings, parking for normal need not maximum possible need, mixed use projects and in general a more thrifty approach to land use.

          In the US if you look at an almanac ( yes, they still exist) under the cities listed are the population densities of those cities.  What can be discerned from that is how many additional people results in an additional square mile of farm land, forest land, wild life habitat, or open space being consumed for urbanization.  Unfortunately it appears that for every 3000 people added even in large cities, and maybe less, we consume one square mile of land for urbanization.  We should not add a square mile of land until we reach densities of 5000 people per square mile, which is the critical mass of people needed to support something other than transportation by automobile. 

         To “sell” the concept of a “compact urban form” it can be presented to the environmentally conscious on the basis of protecting farming, forestry, wild life, and view sheds along with the conserving of resources in general now and in the future.

          This also would mean restricting land uses in rural areas away from housing despite water being available.  A key debating point would be the need to protect streams and rivers from poisons discharged from the urbanization of rural land.  Scientists who study seepage from community waste water treatment systems might be the source of what is needed to stop subdivisions in the middle of nowhere where the probability of faulty waste water treatment systems would be high.

          For the fiscally oriented, the argument should be the cost of servicing rural subdivisions.  If system development charges for additional county costs of sprawl were added onto permit costs, the fees justified for rural subdivisions would be probably exceed $30,000 per dwelling unit.

          Fiscal conservatives will also grasp that sprawl results in greater future infrastructure servicing costs including more future paving costs, additional fire stations to service spread out urban areas, exponential increases in traffic necessitating additional expensive road widening and highway construction.

          For rural people the idea is trickier because of their strong desire for freedom in all things—land use, freedom of movement, and activities such as hunting and fishing.  They have to be convinced that land use will result in less neighbors complaining about their activities.

         Land speculators will never be happy.  The real estate community will quickly realize that anyone buying land at the perimeter of cities may not be able to develop that land for a long time.  Thus, land on the perimeter of cities would no longer be as much of a speculative investment.

         The affordability issue of housing has to be countered empirically.  Over the long term it costs more to be driving everywhere rather than having alternatives to the car.   Thus, the affordability issue is about more than just housing costs. Even with a lot of new construction, housing costs have not declined.  They simply don’t with growth which is one of the great reasons to become “No Growth”.

          Any desirable part of the US has a growth problem.  Decades ago I saw that the letters in Ashland, Oregon; White Fish, Montana; Carmel and Santa Barbara, California; and other idyllic communities often expressed the same sentiment —-if this or that project is approved, the town will be ruined. 

           And while the US Congress is unwise enough to foster growth through high “economic opportunity” immigration totals so that we add 25 million people every 10 years, the desire to flee rapidly degrading urban areas in populated states will not cease.  Thus, the pressures resulting in escalating housing prices will not diminish no matter what the land use policies are.  Thus, infill is still a better alternative than sprawl simply because infill allows the possibility of transportation by means other than the car.  Sprawl, again, results in only one realistic transportation alternative—autos.

              A policy of more thrift in land use would be better for Montana’s future than current land use policies.  But no matter what, growth ruins things so the reality is that to preserve livability 100 years from now one has to do three things; 

1. Go through the cathartic process to understand that one has to become a national “no growth” person.   

2. Become redundant in repeating the concepts that will lead to true sustainability.             

3. Make pro-growthers and/or those who acquiesce to growth answer questions that force them to defend their views. Examples of questions are:

          When will the US finally have enough people?  

          What is that number?  

          What are all the things that improve in the US each decade as we add 25 million additional Americans?  

          Is there less traffic?  Do we have less trash?  Are our airports less crowded?   Is there more water for our communities ?  Is there less alienation and loneliness less as people move all over the country seeking less deteriorated communities such as those in Montana?  Do we have less sprawl and less deterioration of wild life habitat?  

          Hopefully, Governor Bullock, you grasp the point?  In the 1970’s there was a lot of talk about ZPG  What happened to that?  In the 1990’s there was talk of “carrying capacity”.  What happened to that?  There was talk of sustainability also in the 1990’s and early 2000’s.  What happened to that?

          I am convinced from being involved in local government as an appointed and elected official that many people are “no growth” but they some how feel that stand is racist.  But as Senator Gaylord Nelson, the founder of Earth Day said, “  The issue of needing population control as a means of arresting environmental deterioration is not an issue of race.  It is an issue of people.”

        I am also convinced that a candidate running for national office who favors leveling the US population on the basis of livability and environmental preservation would be unstoppable.   Yes, there would be talk of needing a young work force and needing technical people, but why with 330 million people can’t we produce the skilled people we need?  Why do people say that is impossible? 

          If you decide to “stay home”, deal with sprawl ( and recycling).  If you go “national” , deal with the anti growth concepts and include the loss of freedom of movement in the US as we grow.  In the “go national” process you’ll get to be frustrated and degraded by innumerable unpalatable airport experiences.  If you “stay home”, you’ll be happier.  If you go national and are a “no growther”, I’d help.  I’ll help any candidate who favors leveling the US population.

          For livability in the US, “No Growth” is the only sound policy as I realized not long into my 30 years of involvement in land use and the witnessing of municipal deterioration from growth.  But it has often been a lonely position.

Best regards,

Brent Thompson

I don’t do texts, and I don’t use email much, but I do respond to letters.

If I hear from you, I’ll explain why I came to know Montana better. But, it isn’t because I work in Montana or plan to move there.