For the week of February 17, 1999  thru February 23, 1999  

Transfers of development rights

An option or mandate for ag land owners

 This is the first installment in a series on managing development and preserving open space in Blaine County.

Express Staff Writer

Katie Breckenridge and Rob Struthers explain what legislation before the state Legislature could mean to south-county ag land owners. (Express photo by Willy Cook)

On the outskirts of the infamous Bellevue Triangle, east of the Wood River Valley’s scenic corridor, the quiet rural community of Picabo lies amidst a sea of sagebrush along U.S. Route 20.

Queens Crown, a prominent landmark in the area, slants across the horizon, ascending skyward from the valley floor like the rising real estate futures of Ketchum and Sun Valley to the north.

The town consists of a small cluster of modest homes, a Ranchers Supply outlet, a feed lot, an old rustic greenhouse, a general store and a Phillips 66 gas station, all surrounded by vast parcels of farmland. There are no condos or estates here, no high-end subdivisions, golf courses or fancy restaurants, none of the chic tourist lodges of Ketchum and Sun Valley.

In Picabo, horses and cattle make up the bulk of the population. Homes are outnumbered by barns and haystacks. Ranchers struggle to make ends meet and maintain their chosen lifestyle—and their lands--in a time when grain and beef markets have dropped to 40-year lows.

Yet, while lawmakers at the Statehouse in Boise considering legislation to preserve agricultural land and open space, this little town, along with other south-county farming communities, has found itself in the middle of a debate on land-management reform.

Picabo rancher Katie Breckenridge came to Picabo nearly 30 years ago when there was hardly anything here but the sage brush-covered land. Strong-willed and hard working, Katie’s face is weathered from years and years of working the land, yet her beautiful smile and the shine in her eyes reveals a genuine love for the life she has chosen.

Once depicted as a "redneck rapest of the land," Katie considers herself one of Blaine County’s original environmentalists, and is a good and worthy steward of the 1,800 acres of land she calls the B-Bar-B Ranch.

Breckenridge rarely leaves her land and livestock (consisting of 500 head of cattle, 65 horses and 40 sheep), except to travel to city hall or the Blaine County courthouse to voice her opinion concerning south-county land management. Sometimes seen as controversial, Katie is an outspoken advocate for the rights of south-county ranchers and farmers to do with their land as they see fit.

This is not to say that Katie speaks for all ranchers and farmers, for every situation is different. According to Katie, there are two types of ranchers in Blaine County: the ones who work and live on their land and depend on it as a sole source of income, and individuals who buy agricultural farmland as real estate investments or tax shelters, but don’t necessarily work the land or rely on it for their livelihood.

A trip to the Statehouse

Last week, Katie made the journey to Boise where House minority leader Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, introduced a transfer-of-development rights bill in the Local Government Committee.

In Blaine County, the TDR legislation would allow local government to establish programs in which the transfer of development rights would be used to preserve significant land resources, such as south-county farmland and open spaces, while compensating those mostly agricultural landowners who participate in the program. The bill would direct future development away from the rural south county to more populated areas closer to services and cities such as Bellevue, Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley to the north.

Under the TDR program, local governments such as Blaine County’s would establish "sending areas" and "receiving areas." The agricultural landowners in the sending areas could opt to sell the development rights to their properties to receiving area landowners near the cities, allowing increased densities on their projects.

By selling a TDR, the ag land owner in the sending area would give up the right to develop his or her land, thus creating an easement on the property. This development right would create more compact development in the cities by shifting building densities toward existing infrastructure and public services.

According to Jaquet, the idea for TDR legislation was conceived in Blaine County to deal with the transition of farm and ranch land.

"The TDR bill is good legislation and a good thing for Blaine County," Jaquet said.

Jaquet added that a transfer-of-development-rights program would put densities where infrastructure and services are, and encourage compact development rather than suburban sprawl.

In her presentation before the Local Government Committee, Jaquet said that following a TDR feasibility study completed by Blaine County, public officials are considering a combination of a voluntary and mandatory program. Jaquet went on to say that the existing local land-use act is fairly flexible and that the TDR program is a new effort that would start flexible and allow localities to develop operating rules regarding voluntary and mandatory concepts related to the program.

Back at the B-Bar-B

Back at the B-Bar-B Ranch, Katie, along with fellow rancher and partner Rob Struthers, leads a tour of their snowbound land speckled with gray-green puffs of sage.

The pickup truck rattles along a road that Katie built from red cinders unearthed from a hillside on her property. Chukars run down the road ahead of the pickup taking flight when it gets too close—gray wings whirring, red fringed tails fanned-out like rudders in the wind. A calf born earlier that morning rests on a bed of straw spread out by Katie over the icy pasture. Irrigation pivots—sprinklers on wheels—stretch across the frozen fields to the east.

Katie talks about her trip to Boise and gives her opinion about the proposed TDR legislation.

According to Katie, transfers of development rights will not benefit ranchers unless worded properly. Katie says she supports TDRs as long as it’s done right and the language of the bill is worded in such a way that it would make participation by ranchers and farmers in the "sending areas" voluntary in nature, as opposed to forcing them to give up the rights to their land.

"A voluntary program would give ranchers another option, another tool, another right to manage their lands; an opportunity for ranchers rather than a restriction," she said.

According to Katie, under the economics of the currently depressed livestock and farming markets, all farmers and ranchers have to rely on is the value of their land.

"It’s our future, our stock portfolio, our retirement, our children’s education," she said. "When you tie up our options to do with our land as we please, you take away our future, our ability to financially survive."

The struggle to stay on the land

Jaquet is very much aware of the struggle faced by ranchers and farmers in Blaine County and the significant pressure to develop agricultural land. She realizes that farming and ranching are not as profitable as they have been and that existing land-use legislation and subdivision ordinance makes it difficult for ranchers and farmers to sell small portions of land assets to generate cash flow to keep them going through the lean economic years.

According to Katie, "A mandatory program would mean that the rancher has one option with their land other than farming; they would have to sell development rights. The rancher couldn’t spin-off (sell) a parcel and the free market couldn’t function properly."

"If the program was voluntary," Katie added, "a rancher could sell one lot to generate cash flow or develop a parcel adjacent to existing residential high-density property, which would localize development and at the same time preserve open space."

Katie runs a successful ranch and will survive despite whatever decisions are handed down by lawmakers in Boise, she says.

Other Blaine County ranchers are not so fortunate.

According to the American Farmland Trust, the current estate tax system is not farmer-friendly. Estate and inheritance tax burdens often force families off their land, even families that have successfully worked their farms and ranches for generations.

Katie refers to the plight of fellow Blaine County ranchers, who in an effort to get their estates in order would like to divide their property and leave parcels of land to their heirs. Due to the lengthy and costly subdivision process, they are being denied and in some cases forced to sell their land.

Just as Jaquet, Katie has a genuine concern for preserving open spaces, protecting wildlife habitat, and enhancing and maintaining the rural character of Blaine County. She said she has no intention of giving up her land to development no matter how lucrative the prospects.

For Katie it all comes down to freedom and the right to follow her chosen long-term plan for the land she loves.

"I want to ranch until I die," she said. "This is what I love."

(The transfer of development rights legislation, H 157, is scheduled to be heard on the floor of the House today.)


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