In June of 1997 the Gallatin County Commission formed the Gallatin County Open Space Task Force. This 15-member task force was given the responsibility to develop a range of methods that the County could use to protect open space. The methods or tools were to be used to protect the rural areas from the worst forms of unsightly sprawl while at the same time encouraging the type of growth and development that is consistent with preserving our quality of life.
The County Commissioners knew there was a strong case for urgency in preserving our open space. From 1978 to 1992, 295 square miles of farm and ranch land in Gallatin County were converted to non-agricultural production. This equals about one-fifth of the approximately 895,000 acres of privately owned lands in Gallatin County. Since January 1993, more than 17,000 acres of the land within Gallatin County have been divided for development purposes. Approximately 10,000 new parcels have been created for development since April 1993. From 1970 to 1997, the population of Gallatin County grew by 88 percent. However, since 1970, the population in the rural areas of Gallatin County has seen a 138 percent increase, while the urban population only had a 64 percent increase. Given this growth rate, if the County fails to take
effective action the Task Force estimates that in 5 to 10 years it will be too late to preserve open space to the extent needed to maintain quality of life and a significant agricultural community.
Another underlying factor which contributes to the sense of urgency is that virtually all the land which the County can hope to preserve is privately owned. Most of it is in agricultural production, and thousands of acres may soon pass to the next generation subject to estate and inheritance taxes. This led to the conclusion that one of the most effective ways to preserve open space in the County is to take maximum advantage of the limited ways in which the county can make it easier for agricultural producers to stay in business.
The Task Force submitted their report that represented over 12 months of public outreach and public input for land preservation ideas. From the Task Force's recommendations the County Commissioners formalized the Task Force into the Gallatin County Open Lands Board. A director was hired in December of 1999. A public survey was conducted in March of 2000 to determine if the citizens of Gallatin County would be willing to pay an increase in their property taxes for the preservation of open space. The results showed that the voters would support a $10 million open space bond. This $10 million bond was placed on the ballot for the November 7, 2000 general election. The bond passed with close to a 60 percent approval.
One important condition for the bond passage was that the Open Lands Board and the County Commissioners agreed not to spend any of the bond money until a program was in place to reimburse the agricultural producers for the property tax increase this bond required of them. In the 2001 Montana Legislative session SB 303 was passed that exempts property taxes assessed agriculture producers for open space bonds in the State of Montana. This open space bond program is only one of many "tools" developed by the Open Lands Board that emphasizes incentives and market-based techniques for the preservation of open space and the rich agricultural heritage in Gallatin County.