For the week of June 17 thru June 23, 1998  

Are local farmers and ranchers getting a bum steer?

Four views on subdividing the Bellevue Triangle. Second in a series on the future of agriculture in the Wood River Valley


By ANDREW M. SCUTRO
Express Staff Writer

j17covr.gif (16012 bytes)The Bellevue Triangle is a beautiful, ugly place.

With snow-capped peaks to the north, lava studded desert to the south and regularly scheduled brilliant sunsets, Blaine County’s treasured open space has stunning, natural grace.

It is also a battle zone in a national war between suburban sprawl and the open space it consumes.

Inflated land values, a world-class resort, and the SNRA gateway to the American Alps, all keep the action hot.

Some fear the Triangle will be cut into one large subdivision of 20-acre ranchettes and lose all its charm.

Last fall a third county growth moratorium was imposed to give officials time to prevent that.

But development pressure moving south from an expensive Ketchum market and its environs has landowners in the Triangle asking why they can’t build one house per 20 acres as zoning allows.

They complain that gravelly soil, a short growing season and low grain prices make the Triangle less than ideal for crops. But today they have a new problem: Newcomers with have grown accustomed to its farmy look.

The ongoing dispute has created an atmosphere where neighbors sue one other and the county over property rights and the good of the public.

There are no easy answers.

Like any large, contentious issue involving the quality of life and the local economy, opinions on the farmland dispute depend on where you stand.

Literally.

#

In the upstairs office of his local security alarm business, county P&Z Member Tom Bowman is sitting at an old dining room table. Opened in front of him, is a thick binder packed with county ordinances and regulations.

He’s looking through it to find out whether slaughterhouses, feedlots and rendering plants fit into Blaine County’s definition of agriculture.

"Somewhere in here a slaughterhouse is not allowed," Bowman said. "If someone wanted to do a hog farm, they’d have to come in for public review."

Bowman, who ran for the Blaine County Board of Commissioners in 1996, has recently proposed downzoning local farmlands from one house per 20 acres to one house per 160 or 640 acres.

Although he said he’s not sure whether there are any landowners with property that would fit, he said the numbers were chosen because 160 acres is a quarter of a section.

In Blaine County, agriculture doesn’t include 20-acre "ranchette" horse farms, according to Bowman.

"When the Comprehensive Plan was written, I don’t think they anticipated hobby farms using ag lands and raising ag products at a loss," he said.

Ranchettes break up the continuity of croplands, he said.

"When I think of ag uses I think of industrial ag uses. You know, gross domestic product, I think of gross county product."

For Bowman, the answers are in the books because that’s where the problems are.

"If you follow the zoning ordinance you can approve everyone. If you follow the comp plan you can deny everyone."

He has voted both for and against similar subdivisions. He admits that the P&Z has made some contradictory decisions.

Ongoing amendments to the county subdivision ordinances are an attempt to reconcile the conflicts and keep the county out of court.

"There are two solutions. One is to go forward with a rezone to match the comp plan. The other is to change the comp plan to allow residential uses in the ag lands."

#

Lloyd Betts doesn’t see things quite the same way.

He sells real estate out of the Pioneer Associates office next to Perry’s restaurant in downtown Ketchum.

On the wall behind his desk is a topographic map with his 2,700 acre Rock Creek ranchland holdings outlined in black. There are maps and charts all over the walls.

One afternoon in early June, he was on the phone talking about a developer who was lined up to buy a $2 million ranch in Camas County. Betts said he had tried to sell the developer his own land, but the regulatory environment in Blaine County scared him off.

As a landowner, Betts thinks about his pocketbook, but when he speaks at public hearings, he said he isn’t always speaking out of self-interest.

"I think it’s a ruse that they try to preserve farming as an industry," said Betts. "They’re trying to preserve open space. Period."

Betts suggests taking a page out of zoning books back East. In Bucks County, Penn., where’s he’s from, there’s a special property tax assessment that’s used to buy open space.

"They aren’t fooling anybody about it being farming," he said about the programs in the Keystone State. Betts disagrees with the idea that if development were allowed to proceed under current zoning, which creates 20-acre "ranchettes" of miniature horse farms, the valley would be ruined.

"The economy of the horse community in this valley is starting to overwhelm the economy of farming," Betts said. "The idea that a 20-acre well-done place is an eyesore, is absurd."

#

Robert Struthers knows something about farming, horses and real estate.

He lives on his family’s 320-acre ranch between Kingsbury Lane and Gannett Road in the heart of the Bellevue Triangle. He shares Betts’ laissez faire attitude.

"The free market has done a pretty good job up until now," Struthers said. "They’re (county government) stopping the free market with moratoriums and trying to dictate policy."

Struthers’ ranch is surrounded by both farmland and subdivisions.

To the north is Bellevue Farms and the fledgling Griffin Ranch. Just down the road is Prairie Sun Ranch, an "agricultural subdivision" built on land he used to own.

There could be more homes on the way.

As he stood in his living on a recent Sunday evening Struthers looked out over his green fields. He called them his stock portfolio, retirement account and his children’s college fund all rolled into one.

"This is where my equity is," he said.

He’s trying to cash it in. He’s listed for sale 40 acres along Gannett Road for $272,000.

Struthers was on the county P&Z for 11 years and now has a real estate license. He is a descendant of the first "developers" in the Wood River Valley.

His grandfather William Hamilton Kilpatrick was a Nebraska contractor who helped build the railroad in the valley for Averill Harriman Sr. and the Union Pacific railroad.

Struthers’ father was a sheep rancher. In the mid-1950s he cleared the 320 acres of sagebrush for the Struthers Ranch, ran in irrigation water and planted grain and hay. Before that, most of what is now the Bellevue Triangle was undeveloped sheep bedding ground where ranchers would gather their flocks after coming over from winter range in Twin Falls, Jerome and Buhl.

‘They sorted everything out here before they hit the mountains," Struthers said.

Today the bedding ground is a land-use battleground, and sheep are herded along a narrow strip beside State Highway 75 as thousands of cars zip past.

"We are all here because of development. I don’t care who you are, that’s how we got here."

In his living room, Struthers has a pair of child-size cowboy boots and a horse saddle that have been passed through the family.

His son, who just graduated from Wood River High School and plans to go to college. He probably won’t be coming back to work on the farm.

"It’s a lot of work with not much return," Struthers said of farming.

The difference today is one of scale. The margins in local farming are too thin to keep anyone in business who depends on it for a living. Struthers thinks the new definition of farming in Blaine County should include the 20-acre ranchettes that fit better in today’s economy.

Pointing to Prairie Sun he said, "That is agriculture."

#

Where Bowman, Betts and Struthers frame the argument from the inside, Marc McGregor takes a philosophical view from the outside.

He is an environmental lawyer from Coeur d’Alene. He was brought here by a local preservation group, Blaine County Citizens for Smart Growth, to fend off developers and their attorneys. He works under the aegis of the Land and Water Fund (LAW) of the Rockies bases in Boulder, Colo.

He is paid for his work here through private donations.

With land-use conflicts brewing across the nation, it’s no coincidence McGregor is in been the Wood River Valley. The LAW has targeted the valley for a pilot project to keep suburban sprawl at bay.

"It’s kind of at a turning point in the south county." McGregor. "The choices that are being made now are going to set the tone for years to come."

Asked why preserving agriculture and open space is important, he motioned outside a Ketchum office window.

"Living in a village and knowing you are surrounded by open space makes a big difference," he said. "This village in the middle of L.A. would be a lot different."

McGregor said allowing the south county to develop as it’s zoned will detract from the landscape that drew people here.

Now they’re here, there’s no way to separate the local economy from the land that fuels it. Take away the open space and the economic engine will stall, explained McGregor.

"It would be a loss of rural character. If you’ve ever seen that type of development (20-acre ranchettes), that’s the definition of sprawl. It just looks like a larger size subdivision," he said.

#

Tacked to the conference room wall in the Blaine County Courthouse is an oversized chart of the farming district, the Bellevue Triangle.

A field marshal in some past war might have had the same map in his headquarters, scrawled in grease-pencil with red and blue arrows and symbols.

Instead, a county planner has drawn each undeveloped 20-acre parcel of farmland to form an interlocking red grid. The pattern is broken up by blocks of scattered subdivisions drawn in black.

The preservationist camp would like to hold the line and see that map remain unchanged.

Many whose land is drawn in red want the choice to get into the black.

It’s up to the decision-makers, who meet in the room where that chart hangs, whether the colors will change or stay the same.

Today, the Bellevue Triangle is not necessarily the place where suburban sprawl stops but where for now, where it hasn’t started.

 

Next:

Biting the Bullet

What some other communities in the U.S. have done to preserve open space.

An interview with Scott Boettger of the WRLT on TDRs and bonds.

Does Blaine County have the cojones to match its mouth with its wallet?

 

After that:

-Buying the Farm: an interview with the new ranchers. The only family living in Prairie Sun.

And …The tax argument. Some say it actually costs more to provide services in subdivisions despite the difference between farm taxes and residential taxes.

 

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