Why The Parties Line Up That Way in Montana Zoning Battles

Missoula has been suffering one of those land use wars so typical of some Montana cities. The city council, which is controlled by “progressives,” has voted to ease zoning restrictions to allow backyard houses in all neighborhoods, thereby feeding its ideological devotion to crowding. Or, to use their euphemism, “infill.”

A striking aspect of infill battles is that the position of the parties is just the opposite of what you might expect. Leftists, normally eager to restrict property rights, want to allow owners develop their land more intensively. Conservatives favor retaining the restrictive laws that prevent crowding.

Why are the parties lined up this way?

Property rights are based largely on expectations of the future. When we say that owners have legal rights to land, part of what we are saying is that government will avoid inflicting unforeseeable loss on landowners. A government that inflicts sharp and unpredictable losses on owners is one that doesn’t respect property rights.

I believe there is a place for municipal zoning. Ideally, though, zoning should be limited mostly to protecting people against nuisances they otherwise would have to sue to prevent. Most other usage issues can be handled by land covenants. But in Missoula, as in many other places, zoning laws impose rules far wider than necessary to prevent nuisances. They become a way for politicians and bureaucrats to impose their own preferences and fantasies (and the preferences and fantasies of their political allies) on everyone else.

Fortunately, in most places zoning rules change quite slowly. Existing schemes last a long time, and they create their own expectations and assumptions. Those expectations and assumptions become part of owners’ property rights.

For example, if the city says a zone may be used only for residential purposes, then people will buy and sell land in that zone on that assumption. A person looking for a home protected from commercial or industrial activity will pay a higher (or at least a different) price for land in that zone than if the property were unzoned.

But there is a big underlying problem with basing property rights on zoning: Sometimes politicians and bureaucrats change their preferences and fantasies. In cities that, like Missoula, are plagued by constant “progressive” tinkering, this can lead to sudden and radical change in the land use rules.

Conservatives and moderates who oppose radical change in zoning laws actually are protecting property rights, at least as the government has distorted them. That is, they are protecting owner expectations about what can and cannot be done in certain areas of the city. A lot of financial and other human value has been tied up in those expectations.

In Missoula, a series of “progressive” victories on zoning issues has inflicted huge losses on innocent owners—people who bought their homes at agreed prices based on existing zoning, settled their families there, and planned their retirement there. Many of their expectations and assumptions, along with a good chunk of their property values (financial or otherwise), have been destroyed.

Leftists seem to take a perverse enjoyment in using the government to inflict harm on innocent people, particularly people they don’t care for. They also like imposing their preferences and fantasies on others. That helps explain their delight in sudden zoning changes that upend established rules and expectations. Conservatives, as their name implies, generally favor only gradual change so as to protect people against unforeseeable loss.

In the long run, property owners don’t stick around for bad treatment if they can leave. That’s one reason that when I took early retirement from UM, my family and I sold our Missoula home and moved elsewhere.

Polson ranked most business-friendly city in state

POLSON – The irony could hardly be greater.

Just three or so weeks after the last of a half-dozen highly visible downtown Polson businesses – all within a few steps of one another – closed their doors for good, the Montana Policy Institute announced that the most business-friendly city in all of Montana is … Polson.

Click here to continue reading the study featured in The Missoulian.

Montana’s Bus Systems Harmful to Taxpayers and Environment

Montana’s Bus Systems Harmful to Taxpayers and Environment

By: Carl Graham, President, Montana Policy Institute


We’re often told that public buses are the most cost effective and energy efficient means of transportation available. But a recent MPI study found that this perception doesn’t hold true in rural states like Montana. When compared to driving private automobiles, public transit in Montana costs more and takes a greater toll on the environment per passenger mile than does driving that same mile in a private vehicle.

In addition, high subsidies on public transit systems siphon away nearly half of Montana’s gas taxes that would otherwise be available to build, improve or maintain our public roads. These subsidies support a system that Montanans use to fulfill far less than 10 percent of our travel needs, despite the fact that it’s cheap or even “free” to the rider.

The cost per passenger mile of driving in Montana is substantially lower than that of public transit, and is mostly borne by the person doing the driving. Contrary to popular belief, there are few federal or state subsidies to highways. To the extent that subsidies do exist, local governments are the primary source.

The average cost of driving in Montana—including subsidies —is a little under 23 cents per passenger mile, or about a penny above the national average. The average cost of public transit in Montana, meanwhile, is about $1.76 per passenger mile, with more than 90 percent of that cost subsidized by non-transit users.

Using a different measure, Montana transit riders pay an average of less than 40 cents each time they board a bus, while taxpayers kick in an average of more than $5 to support each of those trips.

Public transit also takes a heavy toll on the environment. Montana’s urban buses use on average twice the energy and release more than twice the carbon emissions into the atmosphere per passenger mile as a light truck. A Toyota Prius would be nearly 6 times more efficient.

The major problem is that urban buses in Montana run mostly empty, filling just one-sixth of their seats. Bus systems in larger cities nationally are much more efficient per passenger mile for the obvious reason that they carry more passengers per mile. As a high mileage, low population state, we have to decide if want to spend and pollute more by promoting an ill-suited policy “solution,” or if maybe we should look at other options.

It’s quite clear that Montanans who are concerned about either public expenditures or climate change and air pollution should be looking for alternatives to traditional urban transit models that rely on buses and scheduled routes to move people around. The question is whether we impose a solution by forcing more people to ride buses, or whether we seek choices that take into account local conditions while still meeting the needs of those who want or need public transportation.

There are many options available to help decrease the costs and environmental impacts of public transit in Montana. Removing state and federal government bias toward high cost, high emissions vehicles that run scheduled routes regardless of demand and allowing communities to tailor their transit programs to local conditions should be one of the first steps toward creating more cost effective and environmentally friendly systems. Other options include smaller vehicles or shared on-demand taxis, privatization, and vouchers for those who need assistance. These types of systems would take people where they want to go when they want to get there at much less cost and with a much lower environmental impact. In short, cities need to decide if they’re in the business of moving people or of running buses.



For Immediate Release

599 Words


The referenced study can be found at

Carl Graham is president of the Montana Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and education center based in Bozeman, MT.

He can be reached at:

67 W. Kagy Blvd., Ste. B

Bozeman, MT 59715

(406) 219-0508