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Montana Land Use Planning Act makes city planning more inclusive

by Nathan Dugan
| October 25, 2023 12:00 AM

Senate Bill 382, also known at The Montana Land Use Planning Act, passed through the Montana Legislature by a margin of 145 votes for to 5 against in April before being signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte in May. Though this bill was created over many years with significant influence and support from the Montana League of Cities and Towns, certain municipalities are still reluctant to see the benefits that this bill provides. Perhaps the Montana League of Cities and Towns said it best on their website:

“SB 382 is the fundamental change we need to our statutes. Whether you are a neighbor, a builder, or a mayor, everyone benefits from an updated, more predictable, and fair land use and planning process.”

Recent opinion pieces have posited that this new law removes the ability of citizens to participate in the process of development in their local towns – a position that couldn’t be further from the truth. What the law actually does is increase participation in the process of development, while working to eliminate last-minute veto points that are inconsistent with established long-range plans. This makes the process not only more predictable for those who build housing, but more importantly, for local residents.

The real power of SB 382 comes from its front loading of planning processes and emphasis on growth policies (Montana’s version of comprehensive plans). These processes typically take multiple years to complete. SB 382 specifically requires cities to create robust public engagement plans that aim to gather input from a broad and representative portion of the community. If you, like me, are someone who has the time and resources to read long city council packets and attend meetings at city hall on a random weekday when many others are working or eating dinner with their families, then this process will decrease your influence.

The benefit? Those who typically don’t engage in city matters or who don’t have time to attend the meetings (by far the vast majority of any given community) will have greater influence in planning decisions – influence that they currently do not have to the detriment of our communities.

As communities, we have the opportunity to sit down over a few years and plan our growth for the next 20 years. After we hash that out, we can be relatively assured that’s how our city will grow. No more piecemeal solutions and no more zoning changes on a case-by-case basis – or at least far fewer than the current status quo. We can have peace of mind that we know generally how our neighborhoods will change and grow, and housing developers can waste less money trying to figure out what we want, reducing housing price growth. SB 382 is a win-win solution that empowers the most marginalized voices in our communities, giving us all a say in how we grow.

Nathan Dugan is the president of Shelter WF and is a candidate for Whitefish City Council.