Montana Viewpoint
As Montana’s population increases, so does the need to direct the change

September 4, 2006

It’s taken me a while, but I think I can safely say I know what we mean when we talk about property rights; it means we have the right to do what we want to on our own property, and the right to tell our neighbors what they can do on theirs.

That may be overly cynical, but after years of observing people complain about how what their neighbors are doing negatively affects their property or wanting to prevent a new subdivision or industrial project, it seems like the only reasonable conclusion. And it seems like the reasonable conclusion because thats exactly how I feel about it, too.

I dont want to be told what to do on my own property any more than anyone else, but Im at the point where
Im willing to make some personal sacrifices to preserve what I have around me, and to protect my property and my property values into the bargain.

I asked a friend of mine who is a life-long resident of my hometown how he felt about the increase in building in our area, and his answer summed it up nicely: “We can’t have a free-for-all forever.”

This is especially true when we look at whats in store for Montana in the next ten to twenty years. The new people now moving to Montana are just the tip of the iceberg, and no matter how much global warming there is or isnt, that iceberg just ain’t going to melt.

I think there are two converging dynamics that are fueling population growth in Montana and other mountain states. One is the difference in home values between Montana and other, more urban, states, and the second is the rapidly increasing number of retirees due to the baby boom following World War II.

Relatively high home values in other states provide great advantage for people looking to move to a more desirable area, such as Montana, where home and land prices are significantly lower. Even as real estate prices begin to level out on the West Coast, prices for Montana real estate continue to be attractive to out-of-state purchasers, and most likely will continue to be.

But no matter what happens to the real estate market, the number of retirees will grow considerably over the next few years, and retirement in Montana will continue to be attractive.

I know this is a problem that many towns in eastern Montana would love to have, and Id love for them to have it, but right now I dont think thats in the cards.

This migration to Montana is having some consequences that may be difficult to deal with but they need to be addressed if we want to preserve our rural way of life. They may be only troublesome now, but that will intensify to maddening as the next few years go by.

Today, where I live, increasing prices have made it difficult for kids born and raised here to find affordable housing, let alone buy land. Right now many Montanans are paying over 50% of their wages on rent or house payments. As land prices are bid up, wages will not increase enough to make up the difference, and this will become more of a problem for middle class Montanans.

Game management and hunting access will be seriously affected as more and more large parcels of land are subdivided. Newcomers seem more prone to treat the elk and deer on their 20 acres as pets rather than game. This will decrease the ability to hunt on those parcels and will tend to create safe haven for game during hunting season. There will be more wildlife, but it will be harder to hunt it.

There may be a cultural rift in our communities as larger and larger subdivisions are created. Many of the new residents will fit right in, but the specter of “gated communities” will create a wall of distrust between old and new residents.

The very idea of a gated community implies that local citizens are viewed as riff raff at best, and thieves at worst. Where the new residents once lived they may have had some cause to believe in the protection that gated communities offered, but that belief is grossly misplaced when it comes to Montana, and will be resented.

Those are only a few of the things I see as issues, and Im sure you have some of your own that I havent even thought of.

Change is often hard to accept, and impossible to prevent, but I will tell you free for nothing that change that is imposed upon us is more aggravating than change we impose on ourselves. To my mind, we need to begin the conversation that will lead us toward managed change that imposes the fewest possible restrictions on property rights.

Jim Elliott
Phone: 406-444-1556
Mail: State Senate Helena, MT 59620