By Luther Propst
Sonoran Institute

I was in Missoula, Montana last week at the invitation of to provide a keynote address at their fourth annual conference on Real Estate and Development in the Northern Rockies. Over 250 realtors, architects, developers, local officials and others attended from Montana, Idaho and Wyoming to talk about the economy of the Northern Rockies, and where things may head in the future.

The mood of the conference was upbeat, but tinged with the ugly reality that the economic meltdown has created a housing mess in the Northern Rockies, with no easy way out. The housing market boom has been replaced by a bust of huge proportions, with plenty of financial pain to share.

Teton County, Idaho as Ground Zero

In my talk, Creating Successful Northern Rockies Communities in a Changing Time, I described the situation in Teton County, Idaho, home to gorgeous mountain towns like Driggs and Victor. In our view, not too long ago, the county was well managed and financially-healthy. Growth in Teton County had been slow and steady until about 2005, when the approval of subdivision lots exploded. In 2007 alone, the county approved 307 subdivisions, just as the real estate bust took hold in the region. This year alone, $156 million in property has gone into foreclosure and much of that land now has negative value. It would be hard to give it away. This has created a huge amount of hardship for a lot of people. It is the classic tragedy of the commons.

Creating Zombie Landscapes with Rural Sprawl

How did we end up here? The crash didn’t just single out Teton County: it has taken its toll throughout the West, where “rural sprawl” has been a way of life. Consider a few facts about western Montana as an example:

  • Since 1970, the population of western Montana has grown by about 50 percent. The number of acres of land developed in the same area, however, has exceeded 200 percent!
  • The fastest-growing development size in this region is a 10-to-40-acre “exurban” lot that’s miles from the nearest town.
  • Gas prices are forecasted to continue to rise over the next 10 years. This economic reality will create big future challenges for citizens of the Northern Rockies who tend to drive more annual miles per capita than anywhere else in the country.
Fort Benton, Montana (courtesy )
Fort Benton, Montana (courtesy )

Growth hasn’t been concentrated around major towns where it would be more sustainable. Instead, it has spread along valleys in Montana from Whitefish to Hamilton and from Bozeman to Billings. This type of sprawl — common throughout the West — erases working farms and ranches and puts enormous financial strain on nearby towns that have to plow roads and provide services to faraway subdivisions and homes. The sprawl also ruins wildlands, interrupts wildlife corridors, and spoils water resources.

Bottom line, there has been a massive consumption of private land in the West, and our communities cannot afford to service the sprawling development patterns. When the market inevitably implodes, bringing negative land values, we end up creating “zombie landscapes,” of platted and unbuilt subdivisions.

The Wisdom of Smart Growth

So, what’s the answer? Where do we go from here? Several economists at the conference predicted that the recession will end and the growth engine will start again. Knowing this, what roadmap can we use as we look to the future?

More compact growth can help to solve the problems and save big money. In a recent research report, the Sonoran Institute demonstrated that a “compact growth” plan in Gallatin County, Montana, would save $53 million between now and 2025, and cut commuting by almost 40 percent. The savings come from simple things like reducing the mileage of roads that need to be built, paved, maintained and patrolled.

At the conference, I offered seven key steps, outlining the most important things communities can do to grow smartly:

  • Develop and revitalize main street and downtown areas.
  • Create in-town residential development.
  • Build traditional, walkable, compact neighborhoods.
  • Use conservation easements to protect the landscape and working ranches.
  • Avoid building developments in danger zones such as fire-prone wilderness areas or flood-prone riparian areas.
  • Avoid creating subdivisions that create financial burdens on other citizens.
  • Use policies at the state level to encourage healthy, prosperous communities.

The goal is more livable, more prosperous communities. We can grow in a way that is more sustainable — economically and ecologically. There is no time to despair. There is a tremendous opportunity to influence future outcomes. We are still writing the text.

Also contributing to this report was Amy Linn of
Photographs courtesy

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