David Bigelow’s older neighbors scoff when he tells them Montana residents aren’t turning farmland into streetscapes as fast as they used to.
But the Montana State University researcher has the numbers to back up his claim, even as he gazes at the suburban sprawl between his condo in Bozeman and neighboring Belgrade, 5 miles away. Likewise, the cultivated land that once dominated Mullan Road and the fringes of Miller Creek in Missoula is now filling up with new construction.
What seems to be an insatiable appetite for open land has evolved subtly over the past 15 years. Bigelow and his fellow scientists suspect that leeway may be doomed.
“Much has been said about the crisis of loss of farmland, but the fact remains – we are developing land at a quarter of what it was 20 years ago,” Bigelow said. “It went under the radar. It is not that development itself is declining or becoming negative. The nature of the building changes. We don’t see the big suburban development that you saw 20 years ago. »
Bigelow teamed up with David Lewis and Christopher Mihiar of Oregon State University on the study, published Jan. 27 in the journal Environmental research and titled “Major Land Development Change in the United States Avoids Significant Forest and Farmland Losses”.
The study looked at the rate at which forests or farmland turned into housing or business construction nationwide over the 33 years between 1982 and 2015.
“While the rate of land development increased steadily in the 1980s and peaked in the mid to late 1990s,” the authors wrote, “the annual area of land converted to developed use began to decline. decline steadily from about the year 2000 and plateaued around 2010 at a level equivalent to less than a quarter of the peak conversion rate.
This translates to an additional 7.1 million acres of forest or agricultural land that would have been converted nationwide, Bigelow said. In Montana, that could have meant the loss of about 28,000 acres that instead remained undeveloped.
Meanwhile, after 2000, the country’s urban areas were becoming increasingly overcrowded. In 2015, four out of five Americans lived in an increasingly densely populated place. This reversed the trend in the late 20th century, when more and more people dispersed into undeveloped land.
In other words, the study found that between 80% and 95% of undeveloped land stayed undeveloped. It was not that communities lacked land to build on, but that building trends had focused on putting more homes and businesses in denser locations.
This can be seen in Missoula County’s housing trends, according to Andrew Hagemeier, senior planner with the county’s Office of Community Services and Planning. While open farmland remains high-end real estate, the cost of construction has pushed developers toward denser projects.
“It’s hard to build single-family homes on suburban-type lots and pencil them in,” Hagemeier said.
On the other hand, the city and county encourage more complex development in places like the Mullan Road area.
“As it transitions from agricultural to urban, it will have much more similar characteristics to the angled streets (of central Missoula) than to Upper Miller Creek (a newer part of the southern fringe of the city),” Hagemeier said. “It will look more like a traditional 1940s neighborhood with a network of streets and a mix of uses and housing types.”
Missoula’s housing wiggle room has changed significantly over its history. A block in Angled Streets covers approximately 3.5 acres and is home to a dozen homes (not including garages, apartment garages, and other later vintage additions). This equates to a density of four houses per acre.
West of central Missoula are two neighborhoods annexed in 2021 along the highway. Westview Mobile Home Park, formerly Wheeler Village, shows classic suburban development spacing, with approximately three homes per acre.
Kitty-corner to the east, Canyon Creek Village is more in line with Bigelow’s search trend. Its homes along streets named for Harry Potter characters span 6.7 acres.
The weather is changing
Bigelow acknowledged that some important real estate trends have changed since 2015, when the study’s data window closed. In particular, the COVID-19 pandemic seems to have inspired many people to ditch the big cities for more rural places like Montana. The 2020 census could shed light on this change, but it also took place during the pandemic, and much of its migration data could be affected by the unique circumstances of the national lockdown and disruptions.
Nonetheless, Bigelow remains confident in the study’s conclusion, which argues that the cost of travel appears to be the strongest motivator for high-density development.
The researchers then tried to find factors that might drive the change in land use. They explored household income, population density and travel costs, looking for possible correlations.
The chart depicting the rate of developed land in the United States shows a steady rise through the 1980s and 1990s, followed by a cascading drop to less than a quarter of the peak rate by 2015. Interestingly, the decline begins before the Great Recession of 2007 -09. This indicates that new trends in housing density began before the bursting of the housing bubble.
The trend in national income reflects this arc. The study found that household incomes rose steadily during the 1980s and 1990s, but stagnated in the 21st century. Meanwhile, gasoline prices generally fell in the early 1980s and stayed low until around 2000 when they started to rise and become much more volatile.
“(O)our results indicate that gas price increases also have an important indirect effect by reducing the rate of land use change from undeveloped to developed uses in regions with high travel costs,” wrote the authors.
This could have an impact on national climate policy, they added. Denser housing closer to places of work and services reduces a household’s gas expenditure, and therefore the amount of fuel burned and pollution generated.
To play devil’s advocate, the authors noted that the COVID pandemic’s abrupt shift to remote working could negate the benefits of living in a dense urban area — if you can get your job in town from your rural ranchette, you might end up driving as much or more as you did in the urban jungle. They also acknowledged that their statistics don’t track all the reasons for limiting development growth: Some places may zone or encourage different growth patterns, regardless of how much open land surrounds them.
For example, Hagemeier noted that developers in the Missoula area tend to focus on places that have services like municipal water and sewer availability regardless of distance.
“Ask anyone in east Missoula if they’re facing development pressure, and they’ll be like, ‘Damn yeah, we see a lot of that,’ because they have this infrastructure in place,” said Hagemeier. “We expect a large development to come to Lolo as they have water and sewer. But we don’t see a ton of pressure in the Frenchtown area, at least not on the scale of closer to Missoula. Grass Valley (east of Frenchtown) is at the end of the sewer line. If the sewer was extended, it would be a target.