Montana DEQ – rocks in its head?

Lost socks are a perpetual problem around here. A few years back, the kids would come to me for help, and I’d reflexively ask, “well, did you actually go into your room and look in the sock drawer?” Too often, he answer was “uh, no,” and I’d find myself explaining that it wasn’t very meaningful to not find something when you haven’t looked properly. Fortunately those days are over at our house. Unfortunately, Montana’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) insists on reliving them every time someone applies for a gravel mining permit.

Montana’s constitution guarantees the right to a clean and healthful environment, with language that was the strongest of its kind in the nation at the time it was written. [*] Therefore you’d think that DEQ would be an effective watchdog, but the Opencut Mining Program’s motto seems to be “see no evil.” In a number of Environmental Assessments of gravel mining applications, DEQ cites the Rygg Study (resist the pun) to defend the notion – absurd on its face – that gravel pits have no impact on adjacent property values.  For example:

Several years ago, DEQ contracted a study to determine “whether the existence of a gravel pit and gravel operation impacts the value of surrounding real property.” The study (Rygg, February 1998) involved some residential property near two gravel operations in the Flathead Valley. Rygg concluded that the above-described mitigating measures were effective in preventing decrease in taxable value of those lands surrounding the gravel pits.

The study didn’t even evaluate mitigating measures, but that’s the least of what’s wrong (read on). Whenever Rygg comes up,the “Fairbanks review” is not far behind. It’s presented like a formal peer review, but the title actually just means, “some dude at the DOR named Fairbanks read this, liked it, and added his own unsubstantiated platitudes to the mix.” The substance of the review is one paragraph:

“In the course of responding to valuation challenges of ad valorem tax appraisals, your reviewer has encountered similar arguments from Missoula County taxpayers regarding the presumed negative influence of gravel pits, BPA power lines, neighborhood character change, and traffic and other nuisances. In virtually ALL cases, negative value impacts were not measurable. Potential purchasers accept newly created minor nuisances that long-time residents consider value diminishing.”

First, we have no citations to back up these anecdotes. They could simply mean that the Department of Revenue arbitrarily denies requests for tax relief on these bases, because it can. Second, the boiled frog syndrome variant, that new purchasers happily accept what distresses long-term residents, is utterly unfounded. The DEQ even adds its own speculation:

The proposed Keller mine and crushing facility and other operations in the area … create the possibility of reducing the attractiveness of home sites to potential homebuyers seeking a quiet, rural/residential type of living environment. These operations could also affect the marketability of existing homes, and therefore cause a reduction in the number of interested buyers and may reduce the number of offers on properties for sale. This reduction in property turnover could lead to a loss in realtors’ fees, but should not have any long-term effect on taxable value of property. …

Never mind slaves to defunct economists, DEQ hasn’t even figured out supply and demand.

When GOMAG (a local action group responding to an explosion of gravel mining applications) pointed me to these citations, I took a look at the Rygg Study. At the time, I was working on the RLI, and well versed in property valuation methods. What I found was not pretty. I’m sure the study was executed with the best of intentions, but it uses methods that are better suited to issuing a loan in a bubble runup than to measuring anything of import. In my review I found the following:

’¢ The Rygg study contains multiple technical problems that preclude its use as a valid measurement of property value effects, including:

o The method of selection of comparable properties is not documented and is subject to selection bias, exacerbated by the small sample
o The study neglects adverse economic impacts from land that remains undeveloped
o The measure of value used by the study, price per square foot, is incomplete and yields results that are contradicted by absolute prices
o Valuation adjustments are not fully documented and appear to be ad hoc
o The study does not use accepted statistical methods or make any reference to the uncertainty in conclusions
o Prices are not adjusted for broad market appreciation or inflation, though it spans considerable time
o The study does not properly account for the history of operation of the pit

’¢ The Fairbanks review fails to consider the technical content of the Rygg study in any detail, and adds general conclusions that are unsupported by the Rygg study, data, original analysis, or citation.
’¢ Citations of the Rygg study and the Fairbanks review in environmental assessments improperly exaggerate and generalize from its conclusions.

I submitted my findings to DEQ in a long memo, during the public comment period on two gravel applications. You’d think that, in a rational world, it would provoke one of two reactions: “oops, we’d better quit citing that rubbish” or, “the review is incorrect, and Rygg is actually valid, for the following technical reasons ….”  Instead, DEQ writes,

The Rygg report is not outdated. It is factual data. The Diane Hite 2006 report upon which several of the other studies were based, used 10 year old data from the mid-1990’s. Many things, often temporary, affect property sale prices.

Huh? They’ve neatly tackled a strawdog (“outdated”) while sidestepping all of the substantive issues. What exactly does “factual data” mean anyway? It seems that DEQ is even confused about the difference between data and analysis. Nevertheless, they are happy to proceed with a recitation of Rygg and Fairbanks, in support of a finding of no “irreversible or irretrievable commitments of resources related to the area’s social and economic circumstances.”

So much for the watchdog. Where DEQ ought to be defending citizens’ constitutional rights, it seems bent on sticking its head in the sand. Its attempts to refute the common sense idea, that no one wants to live next to a gravel pit, with not-even-statistical sleight of hand grow more grotesque with each EA. I find this behavior baffling. DEQ is always quick to point out that they don’t have statutory authority to consider property values when reviewing applications, so why can’t they at least conduct an honest discussion of economic impacts? Do they feel honor-bound to defend a study they’ve cited for a decade? Are they afraid the legislature will cut off their head if they stick their neck out? Are they just chicken?

2 thoughts on “Montana DEQ – rocks in its head?”

  1. Had a look at the Rygg report, and is would seem that the author wanted to use an appropriate methodology for non-market valuation of environmental amenities, hedonic pricing. However good that idea is, the execution is flawed, at best.

    What a non-market valuation method like hedonic pricing does is to produce a demand curve. Statystical procedures are available to model such a curve from market data. The author failed to use them, and did a case-by-case, anedotical analysis (?).

    Moreover, hedonic pricing is tricky to apply. Because it is based on the idea that market prices are a function of the characteristics of the product, you have to break down the product in as many caracteristics as possible. In this case, number of rooms in each house and conservation status, at least, are paramount.

    The least we can say is this is a case technical inexpertise by the author of the report.

  2. Exactly.

    I don’t object to the anecdotal approach as an experiment; if an effect is very large, it might find it. It would make sense as a preliminary, because you could learn some things that would help to refine the design of a later study using more suitable methods.

    What I do object to is DEQ’s insistence, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that the study methods are appropriate. Worse, they equate the null finding with a finding of no effect, and inappropriately generalize to circumstances, contradicting even the original author’s warnings.

    It’s hard to make good public policy decisions with bad information, yet that seems to be what DEQ is determined to do.

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