UW graduate explores costs associated with housing development patternsWritten by Natasha Wheeler
Laramie – Anna Scofield was a wildland firefighter for 10 years before pursuing her graduate degree at the University of Wyoming (UW), and her thesis received the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association Top National Thesis Award in 2015.
“I knew I would be most inspired if I was doing some sort of fire economics. That’s what helped me choose wildland fire as the topic to study. I am hoping that this research and future studies can increase firefighter safety and point more of the discussion of cost and safety at the wildland-urban interface,” she explains.
Firefighting costs have increased dramatically over the past decade, according to National Interagency Fire Center data, and Forest Service firefighting budgets have been a topic of discussion at state and national levels.
“I understand why there is hesitation to talk about the impact of houses on suppression costs. There is much more discussion about fuel reduction and reducing fire risk, which is, of course, the goal as well. But studies have shown that the wildland-urban interface plays a huge role in suppression costs,” she says.
Scofield and her team analyzed fire data provided by the Forest Service about fires in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming to statistically evaluate how the pattern of residential developments impacts firefighting costs.
The researchers contended that both spatial patterns of housing developments as well as the relationship between clusters of houses would impact the expense of fighting fires.
“On one end of the spectrum, there is a suburban neighborhood where houses are quite close together. On the other end, there is a big lot development where houses are more scattered,” she describes.
How communities or clusters of houses are dispersed on the landscape may also be important, for example, if they remain on one side of a fire or become separated by flames.
“The spatial pattern is about efficiency. Fewer firefighting resources can protect more houses if those houses are a little bit closer together,” she notes.
The same analogy works for air tankers or individual firefighters trying to protect a maximum number of structures with as few resources as possible.
Scofield and her team used an index to measure costs in relation to spatial development patterns and found that costs were reduced when buildings were placed closer together on the landscape.
“We looked at the entire spectrum. The way our model worked, we showed an effect of both moving from suburban to slightly dispersed patterns as well as moving from already scattered patterns, to even more scattered,” she explains, commenting that keeping structures in close proximity reduces the resources, and therefore costs, required to suppress the flames.
“Our results were pretty intuitive for us, but the magnitude of the cost differences was surprising. One data set showed how much one house can cost, given a certain pattern,” she continues.
Scofield hopes this data will influence discussions in urban planning, especially where new developments meet wildlands.
“The actual pattern hasn’t been part of the discussion at all yet, and we are really excited to feel like we provided another little piece of the suppression cost puzzle, which is a huge issue for federal agencies right now,” she says.
Investigating how developments are impacted by fire could lead to new zoning regulations and incentives for smart urban planning, creating housing arrangements that can be protected more efficiently in the case of wildfire.
As for houses that are already placed on the landscape, Scofield recommends keeping a defensible space around buildings to reduce necessary fire suppression efforts.
“If homeowners create defensible space so it’s safe for firefighters to be there, if they have what we call ‘safety zones’ at the house where firefighters could stay if they had to while a fire passed, that would certainly be cheaper than having a house that required air support to protect it,” she explains.
Although this particular study didn’t evaluate individual risk factors or specific budget items, Scofield hopes that it opens the door for a more detailed look into how development plays a role in the costs of fire suppression and safety of firefighters.
“It’s not about trying to tell people where they can’t live. It’s about trying to have an alternative for places that really have a problem,” she remarks.
High Plains Initiative public workshops discuss future growthWritten by Heather Hamilton
A series of public workshops scheduled in Platte and Goshen counties will be held Oct. 11 through Oct. 14 to provide residents the opportunity to voice their opinion on how they would like to see the area grow in the decades to come.
“This goes back to the Building the Wyoming We Want (BW3) program started by the Governor in January 2008,” explains Platte County Commissioner and rancher Dan Kirkbride. “They offered a more local program in the spring of 2009, and both Platte and Goshen County applied and they chose to combine us into a single program.”
The High Plains Initiative states that their process is focused on engaging citizens and stakeholders in activities that explore growth issues, and developing a range of scenarios and activities that explore the potential growth issues and choices. They also focus on developing a range of scenarios based on public preferences, and ultimately hope to create a vision and strategy for Goshen and Platte counties based on the values of the residents.
“We need participants from all walks of life to come together to brainstorm solutions for our long-term future and determine how we can protect our safe, friendly communities in light of an estimated 24 percent growth in population for Platte and Goshen Counties by 2040,” notes High Plains Initiative Steering Committee Co-Chair Cindy Witt.
In preparation for the workshops, phone and computer surveys have been conducted with local residents to provide a baseline of important issues.
“One thing we will discuss at the workshops is what people really like about how things are today,” explains Kirkbride. He adds that both counties are subject to potential oil development, and that topic will also be presented. Growth trends and land use are additional topics on which attendees will have the opportunity to weigh in.
“People want to preserve small, friendly and safe communities with good educational opportunities. They want to improve job availability, health care and would like to see a recreation facility incorporated,” adds High Plains Initiative Steering Committee Co-Chair Julie Kilty.
“Part of the evening will be a time when people can voice their opinion to questions through clickers. Individuals will punch in their response to a question, then the entire groups responses will be displayed on a screen, showing how many were for, how many were against and how many were undecided on a specific question,” explains Kirkbride. “Another part of the evening will be spent on mapping exercises. Prepared maps showing projected growth in the counties will allow people to discuss their preferences in as much as those things can be shaped.”
The information gathered from the meetings will be compiled into a document for public officials to use in making future decisions.
“The document will act as a jumping off point for communities to show how they may want to move forward,” comments Kilty.
“The end product will be useful for public officials at every level. State, county, municipal, district and board members will all have access to it,” adds Kirkbride.
“I encourage everyone from youth to seniors to be involved and attend a workshop to tell us what you want. Whether you are a student, landowner or business owner, this is an opportunity to think together about what we want to preserve so this region will be a great place for our children and grandchildren, built on the values of our countys’ residents,” says Kilty.
“I’m excited, there are over 20,000 county residents invited, and anyone from outside the two counties is more than welcome to sit in,” comments Kirkbride.
“I also think it’s a chance for a lot of people to see both sides of the issues. They can shape the development by providing incentives to grow in certain ways, which I feel is really positive. I hope a lot of people will show up and be a part of discussing these important issues,” adds Kirkbride.
Hot Springs County hosts resource tour featuring developmentWritten by Curt Cox
Tour stops included the newly completed Red Rock Business Park in Thermopolis, Lofink Farms and the recently constructed Wyoming Whiskey Distillery. Deputy Chief of Staff of the Governor’s Office and formerly of Thermopolis, Ryan Lance was the keynote speaker for the event.
Sponsoring organizations included the Hot Springs County Weed and Pest, University of Wyoming Cooperative Extension Service, Hot Springs Conservation District, NRCS and the Wyoming Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Division.
According to Marvin Andreen of the Hot Springs County Weed and Pest, they have held a tour annually for a number of years, but this year’s tour was different from past tours.
“We’ve went into different drainages and looked at CRM projects and the ranching industry and different things,” said Andreen. “We just wanted to focus on some of the subdivision issues and some of the interface issues between subdivisions and the rural communities, and what impact it is having. We felt this would be a good way of letting more people see some of the issues we are dealing with. This is a good location for us to do that.”
During the tour stops representatives from a number of different organizations and government entities covered a wide array of topics associated with rural and urban interface with many focusing primarily on subdivisions. A common theme amongst the presenters was the importance of proper planning in relation to subdivision creation. Many gave specific examples of how communities have been negatively impacted by improperly planned or implemented subdivisions.
As an example, Mike Baker, area farmer and irrigation district board member, gave an example of how, until recent legislation was enacted to address the problem, water rights could be given up on subdivided land without notification being given to the affected irrigation district. Thus, those water rights could be permanently lost to lesser rights holders further downstream.
In addition, Vern Lofink, another area farmer, discussed his family’s diversified farming operation. Local rancher and businesswoman Billy Jo Norsworthy also shared the story of how her business, Lucy’s Sheep Camp, has progressed from a simple idea into a successful business.
During his speech, Lance covered a variety of topics including the Governor’s “Building the Wyoming We Want” program, his office’s concerns about wind energy development in the state and the importance in maintaining a strong agricultural base in Wyoming’s communities.
The final tour stop was held in Kirby at the Wyoming Whiskey Distillery. According to Donna Nally of Wyoming Whiskey, who along with her husband Steve is overseeing construction of the distillery and production of the product, they hope to begin distilling their first batch of bourbon within the next several weeks. Nally stated that it is their intention to use as many Wyoming grown products in the production of the bourbon as is possible. This includes Wyoming-grown corn, wheat and barley as well as artesian water from the Worland area. As bourbon distilling is not commonplace in Wyoming, they are not sure how long it will take for the bourbon to mature. It is their best estimate that they will be able to start selling their product in the next four to five years.
Sheep fence Bill addresses subdivision conflictWritten by Christy Hemken
Dubois – The ongoing issue of fencing between subdivisions and existing livestock operations was discussed at the April 19-20 meeting of the Joint Agriculture, State and Public Lands and Water Resources Interim Committee in Dubois.
Wyoming Wool Growers Association (WWGA) Executive Vice President Bryce Reece was present to update the legislators on the approaches that could be taken to solve the conflict.
“The issue is in rural areas where lands are being subdivided and broken up to become rural subdivisions, particularly when they come up against existing sheep operations,” explained Reece.
Reece said the Wyoming state statute never specifically mentions the phrases “fence in” or “fence out.”
“But Wyoming is fence in and fence out, because Wyoming was declared to be an open range state in the courts early on,” said Reece. “And the courts have defined over the years that ‘fence out’ only applies to cattle.”
He added statute does specify that if livestock breach a fence the owner is responsible for damages caused by the animals.
“Our issue comes from rural areas where subdivisions are going in, and folks don’t understand the concept of fences,” said Reece, noting Johnson County has had the most conflicts. “There are situations where an existing operation has had a perimeter fence that has served the purpose well, and that might just be a legal fence with three strands of barbed wire. For sheep, if the ground is similar on either side there’s no reason to breach, but if a subdivision comes in with lawns, bushes and attractions, then the fence doesn’t serve the purpose. Sheep breach the fence, the folks that bought the ground are mad, and because Wyoming is fence in for sheep, it falls to producers to keep the sheep on his side of the fence.”
“The producer with his existing operation is receiving no monetary value, and this is causing a lot of problems,” said Reece. “We’re trying to keep Wyoming’s sheep industry moving and intact, and this is causing increasing conflicts where one of the first solution for a producer is to subdivide his land, but that’s not where we as an industry want to go.”
The bill proposed by WWGA would be added to the subdivision statutes already in place.
“The bill proposes that if a rural area is subdivided, as a part of getting permits the developer would have to go to the county commissioners to show they’d reached an agreement with the landowner across the fence, or if sheep had run on the ground for 30 consecutive days in the last 12 months, they’d have to construct a sheep-type fence, which is 32-inch net wire with two strands of barbed wire on the top,” explained Reece. “That would fall on the subdivider, and that kind of fence would alleviate the problem of sheep breaching and escaping.”
Reece said he’d called two fence contractors, and that type of fence averages $15,000 per mile to construct.
“That’s a lot, and the real estate folks and subdividers don’t like that, but our folks don’t like it either, because that’s the fence they’re faced with constructing to keep livestock on their side of the fence,” he said.
Because county commissioners can choose to exempt themselves from state subdivision statutes, Reece said the bill includes a provision that says in the event the minimum fence requirements are not met, the landowner will not be held liable for damages.
Alternatively, Reece also outlined a suggestion by Wyoming Association of Realtors lobbyist Laurie Urbigkit, which would indicate that all rural platted subdivisions are responsible for fencing out livestock.
“Then we don’t have to go into the subdivision statutes, and it’s not one more requirement for someone wanting to develop a subdivision – it just falls on the folks in the subdivision,” said Reece, noting that would also alleviate the problem, and WWGA is willing to go with that approach.
While the first bill would apply only to new subdivisions going forward, Urbigkit’s bill would apply to all subdivisions, both existing and future.
While the bills would represent a policy change, Reece said it’s narrow and defined.
“It’s an evolution of where our state’s going, and where our state will continue to go, and the conflicts will continue to increase,” he noted. “This is to help the industry and producers that are out there, and this would essentially alleviate the problem.”
The committee moved to move both drafts forward for further analysis at their Oct. 4-5 meeting in Buffalo.
Cluster development moves through infrastructure constructionWritten by Christy Hemken
Contrasted with 40-acre ranchettes across the highway, the Sand Creek Ranch’s houses will be “clustered” in neighborhoods of three or four, with each neighborhood on its own and seemingly disconnected from the other 99 planned home sites on the ranch, which covers 836 acres against the eastern slope of the Bighorns.
“Essentially every homeowner on the place will have great visual separation that will always be there,” says Sand Creek Ranch Conservation Community President & CEO John Jenkins of his plan for the ranch, which was set in motion in September 2007. “We took the time to use the topography so every neighborhood is by itself.”
As the ranch continues to come together, the most recent project to be completed was a local effort to restore the Hopkins Producers Irrigation District water transportation infrastructure, which serves four other ranches besides Sand Creek.
“An area that was teetering on the edge of rural sprawl and unsustainable agriculture is going to work now for another 100 years,” says Jenkins of the improvements, estimating the district will cut its water losses in half in converting from open ditches to pipelines. “We fixed something that was 125 years coming apart, and I think we’ve stabilized agriculture for a long time.”
In early June the district had charged the new infrastructure with water for the first time.
“There are five big pillars to preserving the ranch, and one was to get a transportation system on the ranch that would work for agriculture and the limited future development,” explains Jenkins of the roads, which are complete, noting the second was the Hopkins irrigation project.
The next big project on the ranch, and the third aspect, will commence this fall, after irrigation season, and will reconstruct the water infrastructure on the ranch’s property. Plans include six pivots and 400 acres of K-Line irrigation. “For the first time in years we’ll fully utilize the water on the ranch,” says Jenkins of the project, which is funded in part through a cost-share with NRCS.
Accompanying the isolated nature of the small neighborhoods is a 1/99 ranch interest for each person who buys into the ranch, which includes the irrigated hay meadows in the bottom land as well as several community pastures for horses and 4-H livestock.
Following the irrigation, Jenkins says the next piece of development is a rural electric backbone running throughout the ranch, and the last piece is telecommunications, although that one has a unique solution.
“It turns out that a local communication company now does a lot of rural voice-over-internet phone service, and they have a wonderful system with high speed broadband three miles from us that covers the whole ranch,” says Jenkins. “We think we’re going to go completely wireless at the ranch. I had always thought the gold standard was the landline, but I’m not so sure that’s true anymore.”
One challenge currently facing the ranch is property tax assessment, so Jenkins says he’s been focusing on adding more improvements to the ranch and bringing the agriculture operation back into full production while that gets sorted out.
Of the ranch’s future residents, Jenkins says the ranch’s conservative covenants determine who will and will not buy into the ranch. So far there are 16 individuals who have bought shares, which makes it about 20 percent purchased.
Each one-acre home site contains a quarter-acre building envelope, and there’s a 28-foot limit on house height to keep visual impact low, says Jenkins.
Home construction has yet to begin, as shareholders don’t have the option to take their sites out of the ranch land until the electricity and irrigation is complete. Jenkins expects the first homes to begin construction sometime in 2010.