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Guest Opinions

Give Landowners New Market Options

Written by Anne MacKinnon
    New subdivisions are popping up on the fringes of many Wyoming towns. How can we take on growth so that Wyoming will have a strong economy and still be a place where we all want to live? How can we keep the reasons to live here – the ranch and farm lands and people, the small towns, the chance to be part of a community the plains, the mountains, the rivers, the forests and the open views?
    We have to work to create more attractive choices for everyone who is part of the market that is spurring residential development here. We have to make the market reflect the real costs and benefits to Wyoming of each choice made in residential development.
    The people who make choices are in all parts of the market. They are landowners, developers, housing consumers and current residential owners.
    They all need better choices. Landowners, however, especially need better choices. Their need doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. So, in this column, let’s concentrate on landowners.
    Wyoming ranchers and farmers are key players in what residential development occurs, and where. Of all those who love this state, ranchers and farmers also have some of the greatest passion for the land and water and open spaces of Wyoming. They don’t often relish seeing the landscape eaten up by ranchettes.
    Right now, though, Wyoming ranchers and farmers have to work in a market that works in favor of ranchette-ization.
    The prices offered to turn ranch and farm land into subdivisions get higher and higher. In those prices, agricultural families can’t help but see a rare opportunity. Finally, they have a chance to be paid top dollar for the generations of blood-sweat-and-tears that they’ve put into a place. And, for many, it’s a chance to get out from under bank debt that puts heavy pressure on both them and their land.
    Particularly if the prices for their livestock, hay or row crops are low, or if there’s no one in the next generation that wants to take over, Wyoming ranchers and farmers are encouraged by the current market to sell their family place for subdivisions. Even a buyer who wants to keep a ranch as a working place can’t match what subdividers can offer.
    What about changing the economic equation for Wyoming ranchers and farmers? Perhaps if there were another factor weighing in, more ranchers and farmers could make different choices, and all of Wyoming could benefit.
    That other factor might be simply making sure that Wyoming ranchers and farmers get paid for what they really do. If there were more money coming in from running the place as an agricultural operation, it might well be that not as many families would feel their only choice was to sell to a subdivider. They might be able to pay down the debt. And more young people might feel they had a chance of taking on a place and making it pay as a working operation.
    This isn’t going to be a harangue on commodity prices. The idea here is something different: to take a serious look at the non-commodity products of Wyoming ranches and farms.
    Wyoming ranchers and farmers don’t just raise hay and livestock or some row crops. They do a lot more. They do a lot that sustains this place we all love.
    Take a look at water, for instance: well-managed ranch and farm operations maintain clean water, live watersheds, fish habitat, wildlife habitat and running streams kept alive into late summer by return flow from irrigation.
    Basically, Wyoming ranchers and farmers can maintain the spaces, the wide-open views, the whole feel of a Wyoming working landscape that is the core of what developers want to sell. “Your Home on the Range,” the ads say.  That landscape is also what the people at the governor’s recent conference, Building the Wyoming We Want, said they want to save.
    Then why can’t Wyoming ranchers and farmers be paid for doing something so valuable? Why is selling off their places the only way for them to realize the value of those places?
    That is something we can try to change. Working together, perhaps Wyoming people can figure out a way to document what ranchers and farmers are doing to sustain the physical environment - the environment that we cherish, that people come from all over to see, and that too many want to buy.
    We could set up a system that measures and pays ranchers, farmers and other landowners properly for management activities that sustain and improve that environment. It should be done by and through local organizations – perhaps the conservation districts – with funds that might be held, accounted for and possibly matched by the Wyoming Wildlife and Natural Resources Trust Fund. Done right, it could make a difference.
    Or it might. It also might not be enough to make a difference; or it could be foolhardy to fight the tide of change, perhaps turning it in new, unexpected and equally unwanted directions.
    But it could be important to take this first step towards putting a value on and paying for management that produces such things as clean water and healthy riparian areas.
    Meanwhile, another way to change the economics that ranchers and farmers face is to help irrigation districts become active advocates for rural Wyoming life and its infrastructure needs.
    Right now, irrigated lands seem to be magnets for new houses – and the new houses are most often a headache for irrigation districts. But if irrigation districts can be helped to acquire the technology and know-how to adapt to a changing world, they could manage that new housing and turn it into a good new source of revenue that would relieve the assessment burden on traditional irrigation district members.
    Irrigation districts need to gear up to serve the housing on their projects with raw water for lawns, gardens and pastures, and charge enough to make good money on it. Then the districts could afford to rehabilitate, maintain and upgrade their dams and delivery systems without overburdening the agricultural irrigators. They could become a much stronger rural voice in discussions with county officials as to whether, where and how new subdivisions will be built. Making this possible could require some changes in federal rules affecting Wyoming districts, and some aid for new expertise among districts through the Wyoming Water Development Commission.
    Finally, if ranchers and farmers do decide to sell their land for subdivision, they should have a new option for how they do that. They should be able to shape the new residential development themselves, to preserve and perpetuate what they care about most on their land.
    There are efforts being made in Wyoming to do what is called “cluster development” – to design small community groups of houses that cluster around a core of land, often the majority of the original place, that remains working ranch or farmland. That kind of development can also make the most effective use of space and money, so that roads and water supplies and other services can be built and sustained by the project.
    Doing that requires time and money – it’s only possible if the landowner can stay in the process through the development. Then the developer, in turn, has an option rarely available now: an alternative to making the big upfront investment in buying the whole ranch right off, to taking on the high capital cost that pushes developers to cut up that land for housing as quickly and cheaply as possible.
    Right now cluster development is possible under Wyoming law, but it’s not easy. The easy thing is to slice up the land and sell it without a whole lot of thought, effort or investment. The Wyoming Legislature’s committee involved in subdivision law needs to take on the task of creating a bill for the 2009 session that would make cluster development the more attractive option.
    There is a lot more to talk about – how to give housing consumers and existing residents more choices, for instance. Both those groups need more options than today’s too-common stark grids of ranchettes that create debt and tax burdens, and eventually may demand state aid for water systems, but don’t really create communities.
    How about incentives for model cluster developments? Or perhaps up-front state financing of key infrastructure - including water and sewer systems - for the kind of development that county officials and local residents endorse? And especially for in-fill projects in town, to keep houses from sprawling across the landscape?
    But let’s start with the landowners, and see if there’s a wise way to give them some new options.
    Wyoming can do it. Now is the time, when we’ve got the energy and enthusiasm that come with prosperity, to figure out how to grow our own way.
    Anne MacKinnon, Casper, is a consultant in public discussion of natural resource policy, an adjunct professor for the University of Wyoming’s Helga Otto Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, and a member of the Wyoming Water Development Commission.