Conservation developmentWritten by Christy Hemken
Buffalo landowner protects ag in the midst of subdivision
Buffalo - “The most important thing I hope your readers will understand is that we’re landowners first and foremost and ‘developers’ only out of necessity,” says John Jenkins of the Sand Creek Ranch Preservation Company in Buffalo.
“We’ve owned the place since the 1970’s and when my mother passed away in the mid-90’s we looked around to find the best opportunity to keep the place intact,” he says of the ranch land on Sand Creek northwest of town.
“The obvious thing to keep the ranch together was to not do anything with it, but then it became surrounded on two sides by ranchettes, which created problems with operating and drove the land value up so high that my wife and I couldn’t afford to die,” he explains.
Jenkins describes the land as a farm that had always been undercapitalized. “When it got down to it, without investment it was a 150-animal unit outfit that only worked as a piece with other pieces; it had a hard time standing on its own. The old flood irrigation infrastructure was gradually seeing the wheels come off and a lot of unsustainable things were happening.”
After they had begun to analyze their options, Jenkins says he began to contemplate a conservation development, of which he had heard of in other areas of the country. “We started looking for somebody to help us do the conservation development, and when we couldn’t find anybody we decided we’d do it ourselves.”
Beginning in 2003, Jenkins began working with a master-planning consultant experienced with agricultural lands facing a transition in use. The initial step was high-resolution aerial mapping of the land. “Then we had a base to let the ag issues talk to the habitat issues and the engineering and development issues,” he says.
A key issue addressed through the mapping was the compilation of a viewshed model. “Without highly accurate viewshed modeling, it’s impossible to say what will be hidden and what will be visible when buildings are actually constructed,” explains Jenkins. “In the model, from every square foot on the ranch you can see which square feet are visible and which aren’t visible all the way to the mountains.” He says the model even tells what acreage on the Bighorn National Forest is visible from specific locations on the ranch.
Through work with a retired NRCS district conservationist, Jenkins was able to determine what agriculture and habitat opportunities were on the ranch and what could be improved with capital. “That led to the identification of potential conversion from open ditches to pipelines, which led to an understanding of what might be done on the ranch under pivots and other sprinklers.”
“We concluded we could take the farm from a production of 200 to 400 tons of hay per year to 2,000 tons of hay per year under the new irrigation system, and that suddenly made the place sustainable,” he says. “That was something that could compete against five-acre ranchettes and it showed there is a market-based alternative to selling out to the highest five-acre ranchette developer bidder.”
To accomplish the irrigation improvements, Jenkins talked with his neighbors and they came together to form the Hopkins Irrigation District in 2005. “We started working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Wyoming Water Development Commission and came up with a plan to build the Hopkins pipeline, which takes in the country northwest of Buffalo and gives a 50 to 100 percent improvement on water delivery.”
“Out of the irrigation plan came the decision to put 650 acres of the ranch under six pivots and the rest of the ag land will be under a K-Line irrigation system,” he explains.
“After the ag use land was removed from residential consideration, we looked at the land that was left to find the sites with great views that wouldn’t stick out like sore thumbs. That’s where the homes are sited,” says Jenkins. He said they also planned home sites according to views that could be hidden from one another and out of the way of the public so there’s no developmental sprawl.
Jenkins says initially the land lost value because of a conservation easement put on the ag lands in the spring of 2007. “We said we weren’t going to do this project and give the commitment unless the heart of the ranch was protected,” he says, explaining the easement. “Before any of this stuff happened we put a conservation easement on 508 acres of the ranch critical to ag production.”
The financial benefits from the easement allowed Jenkins to finish out the limited development residential part of the project. “At the end of the day we hope to break even on what we would have made if we had just sold the ranch outright back in 2003, but the difference is the ranch is intact and permanently protected,” he says.
Jenkins emphasizes the ranch can preserve the ag productivity for true operators at an ag market price instead of a price relative to the surrounding housing developments.
After the easement was in place, a Founders Closing was held Sept. 7, 2007. Sand Creek gathered enough from the sale to pay for initial improvements, which will begin this spring with roads, electricity, irrigation development and phone lines.
Over time Jenkins plans to add a community barn, a horse barn and storage.
Instead of living in isolation on a ranchette and having total control of 10 acres, the eventual owners of the 99 home sites will each have a 1/99 share in the ranch through their membership in the Sand Creek Ranch Preservation Association.
Each building envelope is one-quarter of an acre inside of a one-acre parcel the residents will own. The ranch has been determined to be able to support 24 horses in addition to the hay ground, plus some potential fall aftermath grazing, and Jenkins says those horse and 4-H animal allotments will be on a first-come first-serve basis and stock will run in a ranch remuda. “Instead of stomping out 99 one-acre parcels all the horses will share common pasture.”
To other landowners considering some sort of conservation development, Jenkins says, “First of all, you’ve got to be clear with yourself and with your trusted advisors as to what your tax and long-term ag position is. Is your ranch sustainable or not?”
He adds that if their ranch had been sustainable, he’s not sure they would have done the development.
“The next step is to genuinely ask yourself if you want to put up with the uncertainty and the hard work associated with getting from A to Z,” he says. “Are all the costs - financial and emotional - equal to the value of keeping the ranch intact?”
The Sand Creek development has been planned so every home site will have an unimpaired view forever. “It seems to me that conservation development is a totally superior way - not just a less damaging way - to develop. It’s a win-win situation for agriculture and for the people who want to live in the country. We never could have afforded to make these improvements to the ranch without the development.”
However, Jenkins says their success has not yet been proven. “Tests remain. We have to show we are smart enough to manage the construction phase well and stage our way through sales so the cash flow doesn’t get ahead of us. When we’re done, we want to have proved that ordinary landowners, who don’t have big income elsewhere to turn to, can use these tools to protect family lands.”
Sand Creek’s grand opening will be this June, when the development will begin broader marketing to the general public. “That’s when we’ll begin to be able to demonstrate the market, because the jury’s still out on that. I think many people who live in cookie-cutter subdivisions aren’t happy with them,” he says. “After experiencing rural sprawl for a number of years, the market is becoming more educated. There’s an increasing appetite for conservation-based development solutions that sustain agriculture, open space and habitat in ways that will protect a new owner’s investment in a rural lifestyle.”
Also, for the first time Jenkins and his wife will be able to build their own home on the ranch. “We never could afford to be out there because one couple couldn’t afford all of the infrastructure. Now we can share that cost and not have to give up the great ranch, and I think that’s the secret.”