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HB 483: Generally revise land survey laws
Ross H Fitzgerald (R) HD 17

The Montana Association of Planners is opposed to HB 483 as currently drafted. HB 483 is very similar to the historic subdivision exemption claim that was known as the “occasional sale”. This bill is labeled the “one-time split.” The occasional sale exemption was rescinded in the early 1990s due to the widespread use that essentially resulted in unreviewed subdivisions. HB 483 would in many respects revive this problematic exemption while taking minimal steps to address the issues that resulted in the occasional sale being removed from statute.

We have seen several bills already this session, many of which MAP supports, that if passed will make it much easier for landowners to divide land. SB 158 would significantly expanded opportunities for landowners to make use of the family transfer exemption. SB 131, which MAP supports, would establish a timeframe for review of subdivision exemption applications and prohibited local governments from attaching conditions of approval to exemptions. SB 152, which MAP supports, would increase the number of subdivisions that are considered “first minor” subdivisions and could be reviewed through a simplified process. SB 170, which is a bill MAP drafted and supports, would create an expedited and streamlined review process for minor subdivisions. Taken together these bills represent a significant opportunity for Montana landowners to more easily divide their land. MAP supports ideas to simplify the subdivision review process, but as currently drafted, HB 483 isn’t simplifying the process, it circumvents the process entirely and is a step too far.

Exemptions should apply to a very narrow set of circumstances so that they are the exception rather than the rule. The ease and likely widespread use of the proposed “one-time spilt” without any responsibility to mitigate issues such as public health and safety would make this the “go-to” tool to divide a piece of property. Montana is already seeing unprecedented development pressure and many communities are unable to keep up with the demands of growth. This bill as currently draft will only exacerbate this situation and ultimately increase the costs of development that will be passed on to Montana taxpayers.

While we strongly opposed the bill, the following protections should all be incorporated in the bill to mitigate its impacts, should the Committee advance it:

  • As we are hearing that there is a desire for this bill in the most rural parts of Montana, the applicability of the bill should be limited to low population counties;
  • HB 483 should only be an option in situations where the tract being divided through the one- time split is 80 acres or larger;
  • Like the current parameters for use of the family transfer exemption, the one-time split exemption should be limited to use by individuals (not businesses and corporations) with one time usage per claimant, per county; and
  • The remnant parcel and one-time split parcel should be prohibited from making use of the one-time split exemption (already included in the bill) or the family transfer exemption to further divide the tract.

In conclusion, we should look to the past and acknowledge the problems with the occasional sale that were recognized by the courts, attorney generals, and the legislature, and not repeat those mistakes. HB 483 is the wrong tool, at the wrong time, and will produce the wrong results for Montana. We respectfully request a “do not pass” on HB 483 unless amended to address many of our concerns.

HB 369: Require referendum to adopt growth policy
Marty Malone (R) HD 59

This bill would require a referendum to adopt or amend a growth policy.

The Montana Association of Planners is opposed to HB 369. HB 369 creates unnecessary bureaucracy and red tape not just affecting local government functions, but directly impacting the ability of communities and developers to respond to our growing housing crisis. Requiring a referendum on all new growth polices, amendments, and revisions, will create significant uncertainty in the planning process for citizens and for private development projects. It will also add cost to development by requiring additional hours of public administrator’s time.
Growth Policies have a broad role in the land use planning process. Their elements include transportation plans, infrastructure plans, neighborhood plans, park plans, or trail plans. They are used to establish coordination or cooperating agency status with federal land management agencies. Wildland Urban Interface plans and Emergency Response Plans are adopted as elements of a growth policy. A Growth Policy also sets the stage for appropriate zoning and development potential, which requires frequent updates to keep pace with development so that infrastructure and government personnel can expand to meet the needs of our fast-growing communities. All of these tools (transportation, infrastructure, neighborhood, parks and trails plans) would need to be placed on the ballot if this bill was to become law. Our highly populated counties, such as Yellowstone County, would be constantly voting on an amendment or revision to the growth policy.
Public participation and input are vitally important to the growth policy drafting and revision process, and the opportunities to participate in these processes has never been easier with the addition of various technology tools. In addition to traditional in-person events like open houses, public forums, and workshops, Planners in Montana are seeing huge increases in community engagement through online systems like Zoom and Teams. With increasing use of websites, online surveys, and online mapping tools, in addition to open houses and public meetings, the opportunity to provide quality input to inform a planning process is growing.
The value of the public process when drafting a growth policy is the quality of the comments, and how they reflect the interests and concerns of community members. If there is ever a question if the public input was adequate, the planning board and the governing body both have the option to re-open public comment on the document, and the governing body can always decide to put the growth policy up for a public vote.
There are safety nets already built into the process if a growth policy does not represent the public’s interests. Besides the role of the planning board or the elected officials have in vetting the document, the citizens in any jurisdiction can petition to place the growth policy on the ballot for a referendum. This safety net has been triggered in several communities, succeeding in the Bitterroot Valley.
The final flaw with HB 369 is how it will impact the development community. Anytime legislation creates red tape or bureaucracy in the land use planning or permitting process, that red tape or bureaucracy gets passed down to the development community. What is most problematic, is the development community relies on privately initiated growth policy amendments in their development plans. Private development interests apply for growth policy amendments with consistent frequency in communities across the state. These amendments are designed to increase the density or use of a development from what the current zoning would allow. These privately-initiated growth policy amendments would also need to go to the voters – the entire community, not just those in the vicinity of the development project. This would introduce significant risk and unnecessary delays, and we would see this practice come to a complete stop.

HB 337: Revise municipal zoning laws to prohibit certain minimum lot sizes
LC 1454
Katie Zolnikov (R) HD 45

This bill creates two very specific zoning standards, and applies them statewide. It sets minimum lot sizes and setbacks for every residential zoning district in every city in the state of Montana.  Montana cities are diverse – the issues and challenges vary from city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, and even street to street.

We need solutions to increase housing supply. Montana is the 6th fastest growing state in the county, and in our state outdated zoning regulations can restrict housing supply. We support zoning reforms, both at the local level and at the state level. We absolutely do not question the benefits reducing minimum lot sizes or reducing setbacks can have in a community. But this bill creates very specific state-wide zoning standards lacking any consideration or evaluation of the local context. This is not the right approach to zoning reform.

We are always concerned about the loss of local decision making and the unintended consequences of adopting these very specific state-wide zoning standards. We are concerned these prescriptive approaches to zoning reform, while important to consider on their individual merits, would result in unintended consequences if required uniformly throughout the state, including challenges to public services and increased expense to taxpayers. We take the stance that the specific details of zoning reforms such as exact setbacks distance and exact building heights are best administered through local zoning efforts. Therefore, we suggest a solution that provides a blueprint for zoning reform with greater flexibility at the local level tied to the incentives. This approach will be more effective in addressing our housing challenges and avoiding the many unintended consequences of a one size fits all approach.

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