Montana Can Avoid Becoming Like California

Montana Can Avoid Becoming Like California

"Montana is at an important crossroads. We can either follow in the footsteps of California or chart our own path."

Let’s face it, lots of people want to live in Montana. Part of what makes Montana cities so desirable is the unique combination of city amenities in close proximity to spectacular outdoors.

There are very few places left in the world where you can be hiking a beautiful mountain trail or casting a line in a world-class trout stream 20 minutes after getting off of work at your office job.

While Montana largely stands out in this regard today, it didn’t used to be that way. Western cities like Los Angeles were also once marketed as a “20th Century Garden of Eden,” defined by their access to the outdoors, clean air and elbow room. Now L.A. is ground zero for urban sprawl.

What caused L.A. to transform from ‘Eden’ to a sprawling epicenter of suburban development, traffic jams and concrete? Scholars say urban sprawl in California results at least in part from strict zoning regulations that prohibit infill development as the population grows. As Montana experiences our own population boom, we can avoid California sprawl and preserve what makes Montana special by reforming our California-style zoning regulations.

As the population in the L.A. region grew and new homes were needed, strict zoning regulations like single-family zoning and large minimum lot area requirements in the existing city areas have pushed new development outward into surrounding open space and agricultural land. A recent report showed that today 74% percent of L.A.’s residential areas are reserved for single-family homes, outright prohibiting even slightly denser infill housing like townhomes and duplexes. Urban sprawl didn’t just happen on its own in L.A.; sprawl is mandated under these strict zoning regulations.

Unfortunately for Montana, zoning codes in our fast-growing cities look a lot like those in California. My organization, the Frontier Institute, conducted a report earlier this year which found that over 70% of primary residential areas in Montana’s most in-demand cities either outright prohibit or penalize the medium-density infill like townhomes and duplexes.

Strict zoning regulations within our urban city limits have serious implications for the surrounding rural communities. As demand grows, the inability to build more homes within the city will necessitate developers do what California cities did: look outward to undeveloped rural land. We already see long-time farmland being turned into sprawling new developments to accommodate the rush of population growth. Many current residents rightly worry that their quiet communities with quintessential rural Montana character are being destroyed by more urban-style development.

The solution is to give landowners in Montana cities the freedom to build more homes where they are most needed. Studies estimate that reforming city zoning codes to allow modest infill development like duplexes and townhomes on single-family lots could yield thousands of new homes within urban boundaries.

This gentle density would go a long way to meeting the demand for new homes in cities, helping to contain new development in areas that are already urbanized and preserve the rural neighborhood character in surrounding communities. This would also help protect nearby open spaces from development.

Montana is at an important crossroads. We can either follow in the footsteps of California or chart our own path. Reforming our California-style zoning regulations will allow cities to grow denser instead of sprawling outward, helping to preserve access to the outdoors, maintain the special rural character of the surrounding areas and keep Montana feeling like Montana.

This column originally appeared in Lee Newspapers.

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