This is how we grow smart

We can’t wish the growth away. But we do have the opportunity to shape it into something positive.


W e live in a wonderful place. Outdoor adventures abound within a short distance from our front doors, and we have abundant wildlife and rural open space, clean air and water. People in our communities are creative, engaged, and care for one another. The Flathead Valley is a great place to grow up, raise a family, and retire. Like me, I suspect most of us would not want to live anywhere else.

And the secret is out. Flathead County is the second-fastest growing county in Montana; Kalispell is the third-fastest growing micropolitan area (communities between 10,000 and 50,000 people) in the United States. This growth brings many benefits, including new jobs and businesses and greater diversity.

As we all know, however, growth can have a dark side; it risks turning the Flathead into the same places people are leaving. Our bucolic rural character could be lost if sprawling acres of tract housing, big box retail, parking, and roads gobble up our open spaces. Traffic congestion, unaffordable housing, abandoned downtowns, expanses of cookie-cutter neighborhoods, and polluted air and water are just some of the potential pitfalls. If we aren’t careful, we could lose much of what makes the Flathead so special.

“Growth can have a dark side; it risks turning the Flathead into the same places people are leaving.”

Fortunately, there is an alternative. We can avoid the negative impacts that have turned other once-unique towns into “Everywhere, USA.” Instead of following standard zoning and development, we have the opportunity to use smart growth to keep the individual character of our communities intact.

Today’s development patterns came about after World War II, when we saw no problems with everyone driving everywhere. Planners and community leaders are now embracing smart growth because we realize that car-centered development is creating more problems than it solves. For decades, cities believed that the answer to clogged roads and full parking lots was more roads and more parking. But no matter how many bigger, faster roads a city built, the congestion returned, due to induced demand: when cities add roads and parking lots, people respond by driving more, filling the added space. No community has overcome this endless feedback loop. However, where communities have added safe sidewalks and bike lanes, invested in public transportation, oriented buildings toward the street rather than toward parking lots, and designed some roads for slower speeds, people have responded by driving less.

To make these investments work, though, people have to live near the places they want to go. Research shows that people are unlikely to walk more than about a quarter of a mile and public transit is not financially sustainable in low-density areas. Communities that want more walking, biking, and use of public transit must grow more compactly. Surface parking lots, which wastefully sit empty most of the time, spread development over a larger area. People are also less likely to walk along streets dominated by unsightly stretches of asphalt. Infill development, where new construction happens on vacant lots or parking lots within the town’s core, helps build a more compact community.

 “Compact development keeps rural lands and open spaces just that: rural and open.”

Standard zoning has long embraced the idea of separation of uses: residential growth in one area, commercial and industrial in others. This thinking goes back to the industrial revolution, when businesses became loud and stinky, buildings grew ever taller, and wealthy people didn’t want to live next to any of it. In the early 20th century, some communities also zoned to separate races, a practice struck down by the Supreme Court in 1917. In response, communities adjusted their zoning to separate multi-family and single-family housing, thereby exploiting economic disparities to legally segregate by race and class. This origin of single-family home zoning is largely forgotten today.

We simply don’t need these kinds of zoning separations anymore. We can have compact, pedestrian-friendly modern communities with mixed-use development. This includes multistory buildings with businesses on the ground floor and housing above, small-scale businesses in residential neighborhoods, and single-family housing mixed with some multi-family housing such as duplexes, fourplexes, and sixplexes.

With compact development, neighborhoods become more lively and interesting. When communities are spread out, only businesses that serve the whole community can survive; no one segment of town has enough people to support a business. Compact neighborhoods mean that cafes, barber shops, and corner stores can thrive; people are more likely to go out to eat or grab a coffee if they can walk a few blocks instead of driving across town. Compact development also keeps rural lands and open spaces just that: rural and open. This preserves land for farming, wildlife, and natural water filtration, which in turn keeps our rivers and lakes clean.
Widespread development is expensive. Building over a larger geographic area requires longer water and sewer pipes, more sewer lift stations, and lengthier roads, services that need to be installed as well as maintained. History also shows that the tax revenue from new single-family residential development does not cover these increased long-term costs, resulting in higher tax rates for everyone. Compact development requires less of these things and generates more tax revenue and more jobs per acre of land.

Smart growth can also make us healthier. Americans are experiencing an obesity epidemic due to poor diets and a lack of adequate exercise. Walkable and bikeable communities encourage movement. Smart growth also lessens the increase of auto emissions, improving our air quality. Green space is vital to thriving communities, and smart growth plans for community parks within walking distance of neighborhoods. Street trees are essential, making neighborhoods more enjoyable to walk, cleaning the air, providing shading and bird habitat, and absorbing water that would otherwise enter the stormwater system.

 “Building over a larger geographic area requires longer water and sewer pipes, more sewer lift stations, and lengthier roads, services that need to be installed as well as maintained.”

Fast-growing communities, like ours, face a challenge keeping housing affordable. There are too many newcomers ­— often with a disproportionate amount of wealth ­— and too few homes. Smart growth can spur development in a wider variety of housing by allowing developers to construct mixed-use buildings and neighborhoods. Ironically, though, smart growth can also put upward pressure on housing costs because it makes communities more desirable. This is where city councils and county commissioners need to show a passionate commitment to affordable housing. Government can facilitate more affordable housing by permitting backyard cottages, garage apartments, fourplexes, and row houses in existing single-family neighborhoods, as well as working with nonprofits to utilize state and federal housing resources.

Our valley is growing rapidly because it is a wonderful place to live. Now is the time to decide whether to sit back and see what happens or to direct the growth thoughtfully, based on best planning practices. We have an opportunity right now to create unique, enduring, individual communities that only become stronger with growth.

A few benefits of compact, mixed-use development:

    • More open, undeveloped land

      Consolidating development to urban centers allows for more land to be left open for outdoor recreation or agriculture.

    • More pedestrian-friendly & Less driving

      With more stores and other amenities closer to residential areas, more people can walk to stores/restaurants.

    • Better for small businesses

      More pedestrians mean more walking traffic downtown, which in turn means more customers for our small Main Street businesses.

    • Cheaper/less tax money to develop & maintain

      Keeping development centralized requires fewer water and sewer pipes, and fewer roads than sprawl development. It’s also less costly to maintain.


Ryan Hunter serves as a member of the Kalispell City Council and works for the Flathead Land Trust as a land protection specialist.


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