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Big Sky Crowded: Growth, density and the future of the Gallatin Valley

Big Sky Crowded: Growth, density and the future of the Gallatin Valley

By Eric Dietrich Chronicle Staff Writer Jan 31, 2016

It’s hard to argue with the math.

Buoyed by the region’s booming economy and widely lauded quality of life, Gallatin County pushed past the 100,000-resident mark for the first time last year. Since 1990, annual population growth in the Bozeman area has averaged 2.8 percent — doubling the number of souls in the region in only a quarter century.

At that rate, thanks to the dynamics of exponential growth, the next decade will see 32,000 new residents in the county — a number slightly larger than the population of Helena. By the time children born today graduate from high school in 2034, the county could hold 165,000 people, a majority of the new arrivals likely to settle alongside those of us already in the Gallatin Valley.

In a place where the Big Sky take on the American Dream has long focused on the freedom to stake a claim amid broad horizons, there’s perhaps no greater source of collective angst than those numbers and their implications. Bozeman’s growth has gone hand-in-hand with prosperity, certainly, but has also brought change — not all of it entirely welcome.

Steve Kirchhoff, a former Bozeman mayor and ardent preservationist, speaks for many of the valley’s residents when he worries about the impact of sprawling development and its attendant “suburban schlock.”

“I love this place,” he said, “and, to me, it’s getting sold out.”

“It’s a squandering, basically, of our heritage that we did nothing to earn,” he added. “We lucked into this place, and we’re basically soiling it.”

“Somebody should hit a pause button,” he said.

Ain’t seen the end of it yet

Idle fantasies aside, most land use experts agree that halting development wholesale — building the proverbial wall around Bozeman, and maybe Belgrade — simply isn’t realistic. As much as preservationists like Kirchhoff pine for a pause button, even he admits there’s no freezing growth in its tracks.

“It’s just not in the cards,” said Randy Carpenter, a smart growth advocate with the Bozeman think tank Future West. “We’re just going to continue to grow, because it’s such a great place.”

Even if trying to shut down development entirely was on city or county agendas, Carpenter added, efforts would likely run afoul of landowners’ constitutionally guaranteed property rights.

“You’d end up spending more time in the court system than you would in the planning boards,” he said.

Additionally, limits on new residential development would almost certainly drive up housing prices as new residents continue to stream in, increasing competition in the area’s already-tight housing market. More likely than not, restrictions would end up forcing lower-income residents to far-flung communities beyond the reach of local planning jurisdictions.

“We have a constitution — you can’t stop people from coming here and building here,” said Bozeman Mayor Carson Taylor, who took office at the beginning of the year. The city could stop annexing land, he said, “but then you’d end up a little bit like the situation that happened in Boulder (Colorado). Property values go way up, then you can’t maintain a city of socioeconomic diversity and you end up with a different kind of city than anybody, I think, wants.”

Taylor did say that he thinks it’s possible to “slow growth so that it doesn’t come in faster than you can handle.”

“Let’s do growth right,” he said. “If doing it right slows it down a little bit, that’s not a bad thing.”

Big Sky Crowded: Growth, density and the future of the Gallatin Valley