By Eric Dietrich MONTANA FREE PRESS
A bill presented to the Montana Legislature on February 15, 2022, aims to increase the availability of moderately priced homes in Montana by reducing the power of city and town governments to require that new homes be built on larger properties. House Bill 337, sponsored by Rep. Katie Zolnikov, R-Billings, proposes that local governments cannot demand minimum lot sizes larger than 2,500 square feet in areas served by municipal water and sewer systems. This is among the first major proposals to come before the Legislature that aligns with the supply-focused approach to Montana's housing crunch as recommended by a housing task force convened by Gov. Greg Gianforte last summer.
Proponents of the bill, including free-market groups, housing affordability advocates, and one of the state's prominent environmental groups, argue that minimum lot sizes are one of the factors that constrain Montana's housing supply. According to them, land costs are a significant component in the cost of new housing, and developers tend to construct more extensive and less affordable houses on larger lots. The bill would not force property owners or developers to carve out smaller lots, but instead, make it an option for them.
However, the bill has been met with resistance from local government officials who argue that passing it would take away the authority for land use decisions from the people who are best positioned to assess the situations and needs of their particular communities. Although some Montana cities, such as Helena, have removed minimum lot sizes from their development codes in recent years, such development requirements remain in others, such as Bozeman, which specifies a minimum of 4,000 square feet in its residential zoning code, and Kalispell, which requires lots to be at least 20,000 square feet in its lowest-density R-1 zone.
While some supporters agree that smaller lot sizes might be a good housing strategy, they should be considered as part of comprehensive land use planning reform. Opponents of the bill believe that smaller lots are not a "panacea" for Montana's housing crisis, and argue that it shouldn't be forced on every community regardless of the circumstances. However, the bill is seen by many as a step in the right direction to help communities build and help individuals contribute to their communities by having a place to live.