For the week of July 15 thru July 21, 1998  

 

In an ongoing series about the land-use battle over agricultural areas in Blaine County, the Idaho Mountain Express has taken a look at the problems of subdividing farmlands and possible solutions. The second article in this series contained interviews with agricultural landowners who want the right to subdivide their land. In this fourth article in the series, we interview landowners who believe their and the public’s interest in preserving open space is the same.

Also in this series

 

 

The preservationists

South-county farmers and ranchers argue that preserving open space is in everyone’s best interest

 


By ANDREW M. SCUTRO
Express Staff Writer

15farm5.gif (10796 bytes)The farmland dispute as illustrated at the corner of Baseline Road and Friedman Lane in the middle of the Blaine County’s farming district. Critics oppose development of open spaces. (Express photos by Andy Scutro)

The farming and ranching community in southern Blaine County is a divided camp.

On one side of issue are landowners who support development in agricultural areas; the other is made up of those who want the open space preserved.

Many who want to retain the right to subdivide their land have felt the squeeze of high production costs and low crop prices on the farm economy.

They are people who love farming and the open space it creates, but the land is their savings account, stock portfolio and retirement all in one.

Growing economic pressure on the industry will eventually force some to sell their farms and ranches.

The Idaho Mountain Express interviewed several of these farmers and ranchers in the second article in this series.

On the other side of the dispute are landowners who don’t want to subdivide their land and don’t want subdivisions near their property.

Some in this group are gentleman farmers, who may not feel the pain of farm economics as much as their neighbors.

This camp is outspoken in its interest to maintain the status quo and, therefore, the aesthetics of southern Blaine County.

The aesthetics are the idyllic green pastures, lush creeks and rows of barley a motorist sees from U.S. Route 20 between Picabo and Stanton Crossing.

The landed gentry argues that while preserving open space is clearly good for land, it’s also good for everyone in the county.

15farm4.gif (9396 bytes)Former television news show producer Larry Schoen has taken up farming in Blaine County. He is working to preserve open space and the farming way of life. (Express photos by Andy Scutro)

"There is tremendous value in these large unsubdivided farms," said Larry Schoen during a recent interview.

As president of the Blaine County Ranchers Association, a south-county landowner and a conservationist, Schoen often speaks at public meetings on farmland issues.

Like many of his neighbors, he came to this area from elsewhere with money to spend. He could live anywhere, but chose Blaine County.

Frustrated that he wasn’t actually producing anything physical, Schoen left his job in New York as an ABC News producer in the mid-1980s and soon became a self-described "Jeffersonian" farmer in Blaine County.

"For me it was a personal thing. I wanted to do something more real," Schoen said.

In 1991, he bought 80 acres of land on U.S. Route 20 west of Picabo in southern Blaine. Today he raises barley and hay on 195 acres of his land, leases 650 more and custom farms another 390.

Schoen has dedicated 180 acres of his land to conservation easements, some of which he farms but can never develop.

Owning land in Blaine County has been a good investment for Schoen.

An 80-acre piece of land he can see from his breakfast table reportedly just sold for $4 million, not including any buildings.

Schoen feels his land values and way-of-life will be in danger if development is allowed to spread south from the northern cities of Ketchum, Hailey and Bellevue.

"If a subdivision were across the street or adjacent to my property, it would destroy the value of what I’ve put together."

Part of what Schoen has put together is living in a beautiful place and psursuing his ideal of a farmer. That includes a Jeffersonian ideal of civic responsibility.

"The reason I’m interested in farm preservation is I think agriculture is a vital part of the community," Schoen said. "It’s just part of the whole. It links Blaine County to the rest of Idaho."

15farm1.gif (10881 bytes)When good farmland is lost to ranchettes and weeds, Schoen worries that the value of the area will fall.

"In Blaine County it’s still true that you have people who are willing to come in and buy large parcels for a piece of the western experience, to have a ranch in Idaho."

Tom O’Gara did just that.

Like Schoen, O’Gara could live anywhere but chose Blaine County when he moved here from Woody Creek near Aspen, Colorado, 10 years ago.

He owns the sprawling Silver Springs Angus Ranch on Price Lane in the Bellevue Triangle, a farm district immediately south of the city of Bellevue. He has added to his holdings recently by buying several surrounding parcels of land.

O’Gara lives in the old Price family home, a mid—1800s mansion surrounded by shade trees, quarters for help and other outbuildings.

"This is the heart of the Triangle and the original settlement," he said as he sat on a couch in his den recently.

Now a seven-lot subdivision called Syringa Ranch is proposed for land right across the road.

O’Gara would like to have neighbors but thinks putting seven homesites of 20 acres each on a road that’s impassable in winter is short-sighted.

To O’Gara, it’s Woody Creek, Colorado, all over again.

"They’re business people, and they see profit," O’Gara said. "They see turmoil, and they want to strike."

O’Gara, who raises Angus cattle and is involved in an international security firm, said he was pushed out of Colorado by ranchette dwellers who don’t belong near agriculture. Though generally nice people, he said, the newcomers were "clueless."

The newcomers wanted the look of the country but didn’t know enough not to let their dogs chase the cows, according to O’Gara. They wanted to look at wildlife but called the game warden when deer ate the shrubbery.

In a way, the plight of the area he came from is a predicament Blaine County government is trying to prevent.

With one road leading into the ski town and the working class being pushed farther south by inflated land values, O’Gara sees Blaine’s Wood River Valley starting to resemble Aspen’s Roaring Fork Valley.

"The similarities are startling," he said.

By coming here, O’Gara thought he might be avoiding Aspen’s problems. He and his wife spent seven months looking at property in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

"I was relatively sensitive to issues of development," O’Gara said. "A farming/ranching community is where we wanted to be."

Before buying the ranch, he researched the issues locally, and felt Blaine County was at least trying to preserve agriculture.

"I got myself comfortable with the fact that it was a county that at least knew what was going on."

Today, a lack of leadership in the county has allowed neighbor to be pitted against neighbor, he said.

"This is all about greed and cashing in," he said of the developers.

Like other ranchers and the county government, O’Gara argues that soaring infrastructure costs should prevent growth in the farming areas. Otherwise, everyone pays for development in the form of expanded county services, he said.

"The county can’t afford to have development willy-nilly all over the place."

As his wife and young son played outside, O’Gara said, "It [farmland development] may be expedient and profitable but what about the future generations? That for me is the issue."

Like O’Gara and Schoen, John Fell Stevenson came to Blaine County because of the way it looked and felt.

15farm3.gif (10733 bytes)A contract malt barley grower, John Fell Stevenson has sued Blaine County over a subdivision in farmland adjacent to his property. He thinks farming is incompatible with housing. (Express photos by Andy Scutro)

Stevenson, who moved to Blaine County in 1972, had been involved in finance and was living in San Francisco. He wanted to be a rancher.

While driving back to California after visiting friends in Moore, near Mackay, he passed through the Wood River Valley on U.S. Route 20 and decided this is where he wanted to be.

Stevenson bought 1,750 acres at $300 per acre, but knew nothing about farming.

"The Coors agronomist had to show me how to set my combine," he said.

Now Stevenson owns 4,000 acres in the county and is a malt barley producer for the Coors Brewing Company.

He is also the plaintiff in a lawsuit against Blaine County over approval of development in the midst of farm country.

Stevenson took time out from fixing a broken pump recently to talk about south-county land-use issues.

"In this county we have a comprehensive plan that calls for growth radiating out from the population centers. And we ranchers were asked by the county to write the agricultural section of that comprehensive plan. So the question is do we pay attention to what we and the county thought was important?"

When he speaks, Stevenson is careful to define farming as a commercial operation like his own that involves the use of large machines and big pieces of land.

"I don’t think having a few horses to ride is agriculture. I think of agriculture as raising crops for sale," Stevenson said.

15farm2.gif (10126 bytes)His neighbors on Hillside Ranch Road, the Rogers family, are also involved in courtroom proceedings with the county to halt farmland development.

Like the Rogers, Stevenson thinks, "People and commercial farming don’t mix."

But Stevenson, like Schoen and O’Gara, is different from neighbors who feel economically pressured to sell their land.

"I guess I’m in the fortunate position of having land that’s paid for," Stevenson said. "There really isn’t room anymore for a mortgage on your ranch and leasing the ground."

For Stevenson the issue isn’t only whether or not his farming operations are going to bother ranchette owners but whether the Wood River Valley looks tomorrow like it does today.

Stevenson doesn’t want the county to change like other areas that have succumbed to rapid growth, including the Teton Valley in Idaho and the Bitterroot Valley in Montana.

"I think we have something special here in Blaine County. I think Blaine County can do better than other places that had beautiful valleys," he said.

 

Next: The tax argument. Do property taxes on subdivisions in farmlands pay for the needed infrastructure?

 

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