The Bitterroot on the Leading Edge


The Bitterroot National Forest placed first in a race it did not enter.  In the 2007 research report Forests on the Edge, National Forests were ranked by the projected  home density increase on adjacent private land.  For a select group of nine National Forests, the study predicted  an increase  of at least twenty-five percent by the year 2030; the Bitterroot topped the list.

 Given this crystal ball distinction within the National Forest System, Spatial Interest traveled to Hamilton, Montana to learn about a Community on the Leading Edge . 


The land use patterns in the Bitterroot Valley are a consequence of past voluntary landowner initiatives, land trust activity,  and exurban development.  The developments occurred without a comprehensive county plan or land use standards in unincorporated regions of the county.  Growth management initiatives over the past two years propose general standards for future land use conversion.  Ballot initiatives approved by voters in 2006 have generated heated discussion within the community.    Prior to describing these initiatives below, three  photo atlases  provide a sample of landscapes and real estate development styles in Ravalli County.   The reader will recognize that there is no single pattern.  In the absence of a comprehensive county plan and land use ordinance, alternatives happen with varying impacts on working lands and open space.  The alternatives include voluntary regulation and  conservation agreements, exurban development with limited standards, and a gated rural estate development designed with open space objectives.

Voluntary Approaches

Voluntary zoning districts are an option available to neighborhoods in the unincorporated areas of Ravalli County.  By following a well defined procedure, Landowners petition the County Commissioners, and provide draft district boundaries and zoning standards.   Residents in several neighborhoods have have requested, and the Commissioners subsequently formed, voluntary districts.  The photo atlas records two examples of voluntary zoning districts, both located near the edge of the Bitterroot National Forest. boundary  Note in the pictures of the neighborhood to the south that the private forest was recently thinned, decreasing fuels load and the fire hazard.  The minimum lot size in the neighborhood is ten acres.  The neighborhood to the north also offers large lots in a pastoral setting adjacent to the National Forest.


Between the two neighborhoods, the atlas displays one picture of  private land with a conservation easement.  The Montana Land Reliance, working with the landowner, reached an agreement to protect the 155 acre parcel from further subdivision and development.  This parcel is but one example of the open space efforts of  land trusts and government agencies in the region.  Seven organizations have contributed to open space by implementation of financial incentives for landowner's who agree to  voluntary limitations:  Bitter Root Land Trust; Montana Land Reliance; Five Valleys Land Trust; The Nature Conservancy; Montana Department of Fish, Game and Parks; USDA Forest Service; and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.  In aggregate, their land protection efforts have left a footprint on the valley totaling nearly 32,000 acres.



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Exurban Development

 The Bitterroot Valley development, external to incorporated towns, includes parcels that were not subject to zoning standards.  Neither urban or suburban, these exurban developments tend to have lot densities higher than the neighborhoods with self-imposed  zoning districts.  A default density adopted in 2006 established a standard of 1 house every 2 acres.  Intended as a control on sprawl, the policy resulted in an    increase of scattered development.  The photo atlas includes two examples of exurban development within the county.


The photos to the north on the map shows a group of homes above an industrial area (adjacent to the highway).  To the west of the existing homes, a sign on vacant land advertises  Montana Trophy Homes, and references a website of the same name.


The photos on the southern part of the atlas were taken along a road that leads to the Bitterroot National Forest.  This group of photos is best viewed with the satellite image background, revealing the total number of homes that exist today on the Leading Edge.


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Rural Estate

Rural estate development  offers an alternative method to retain open space within the valley.  A three thousand acre gated community in the photo atlas combines agricultural land in the lower elevations, elk winter range in the higher elevations, and distinguished estate homes on large lots in the middle of the community.  The satellite option view of the atlas, zoomed out from the initial map,  shows the diversity of landscape characteristics.     

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The Future

Following a decade of rapid growth

, new development proposals submitted to the Ravalli County Planning Commission had a change in characteristics: an increase in total size and also in the distance from existing services.  The size and location attracted the attention of residents.  Developers sought approval for subdivisions that included   500-700 lots, located as far as 10 miles from existing services.  The taxpayer cost to support residential services, combined with the loss of working farms and ranches, threatened the  sense of place that attracted residents to the valley- a threat potentially compounded by living on the Leading Edge.  The Ravalli County tax parcel records report acres by land use class:  over 180,000 acres within the county are classed as rural agriculture, implying a large "inventory" of parcels for potential conversion.  With a  disparity between  assessed valuations for rural agriculture ($255/acre) and rural residential ($8,150/acre), the market incentive for conversion compels a landowner to consider the option.


In response to the growth trends, voters approved three initiatives in a November 2006 election.  The voters:

  1. Expanded the County Commission from 3 to 5 members, and subsequently elected 3 new Commissioners in June 2007.  Each of the new members campaigned on a platform that supported county planning.
  2. Adopted an interim zoning standard for the short-term,  while county staff and consultants prepared  a growth management plan and county wide zoning ordinance.  The interim density standard allowed one house per two acres.
  3. Passed a $10 million Open Space Bond issue, with an objective to retain farms and ranches by providing financial incentives to landowners.


The ballot initiatives combined  regulation and market incentives as part of a strategy to manage future growth.  However,  reading the homemade signs posted along Highway 93 (Repeal Growth Management!), citizen response may lead growth management travelers across a bridge to nowhere.   Other signs of discontent include Letters to the Editor of the Ravalli Republic (see links of interest), resignations of the Planning Director (twice) and staff,  and a stop zoning ballot initiative placed on the November 2008 ballot.


The current uncertainty surrounding the growth management strategy  increased landowner interest in conservation easements.  Gavin Ricklefs, Executive Director of the Bitter Root Land Trust, has seen an increase in landowner inquiries this year - an average of 3-4 contacts per week.  This spike  occurs at the same time financial contributions are slipping for land trusts and foundations with conservation programs.  Market behavior responds in surprising ways.


Reconsidering the Bitterroot National Forest's prize on the Leading Edge, every property owner has entered the race, whether by choice or not.  The real estate market challenges communities to reach consensus on the finish line and the rules of the game.  Voters and their elected officials define the balance between public policy and market incentives.    Comprehensive planning contributes to the process by designing the finish line through the spatial structure of a county plan. The growth management plan, including zoning,  enables incentives to work for the common goals defined in the plan.   Analogous to the subprime credit crisis, markets without sideboards benefit a few at the expense of many.  Ravalli County voters will again make their choice in November.  The ballot initiative outcome will define their role to influence both the future of the Leading Edge and the distribution of the prize.