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For the week of Mar. 8 through Mar. 14, 2000

Clashing land use values

Pressures grow to subdivide farmland


By KEVIN WISER
Express Staff Writer

Across the farmlands of south Blaine County, idle irrigation pivots, sprinklers on wheels, stretch across the snowy land, waiting for spring.

Farmers will be planting soon. By early summer, crops of alfalfa, wheat and barley will weave a quilt of green across the land.

The winter stillness belies a widening debate over south county land use.

Just last month, Blaine County Commissioners, after several hearings, decided an important south county land use question.

The commissioners unanimously denied an application by William and Mary Helen Leet to subdivide 104 acres into four 26-acre parcels, to be called the Baseline Ranch subdivision. The commissioners’ Feb. 16 decision concluded that approval of the application would have violated a goal of the county comprehensive plan--to preserve agriculture and open space.

To be sure, the debate over land use won’t stop with the Leet decision. Indeed, it’s expected to widen as land becomes more valuable amid pressures to develop south county farmland.

Moreover, the debate goes beyond the commissioners’ meeting room to the farms and ranches of south Blaine County where the consequences of such decisions are far-reaching.

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South of the Bellevue Triangle and downstream from the headwaters of Silver Creek, farms and ranches spread out on both sides of U.S. Route 20.

Landowners there appear to be divided as to the best course for land use.

Those who have had subdivisions denied say the county is infringing on their right to realize the full value of their property. Conversely, owners of large agricultural operations oppose south county subdivisions because they fear nearby residential development will harm their farming operations.

South county rancher John Fell Stevenson owns the 2,000-acre Hillside Ranch located about two miles east of Timmerman Junction along U.S. Route 20.

John Fell StevensonSouth county rancher John Fell Stevenson agrees with county policy encouraging the preservation of large blocks of farmland. “We don’t feel we’re sacrificing by not subdividing,” he says. “We’re protecting our assets.” (Express photo by David M. Seelig)

Stevenson, whose operation is subsidized in part by off-farm investments, fits the description of a gentleman rancher who loves to work the land. The son of U.S. presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, he came to the Wood River Valley in 1972 from Illinois, where his family has farmed for generations.

Stevenson agrees with county policy that encourages the preservation of large blocks of farmland in an effort to ensure that commercial agriculture will continue in the south county.

Stevenson said that ranching and farming operations in Blaine County, like the rest of the country, have become larger due to the difficulty of making a living farming smaller parcels of land.

"If America wants low-priced food then farming has to be done on large and efficient operations," Stevenson said during an interview on his spread. "The number of farms has gone down and the size of farms has gone up."

According to the Blaine Soil Conservation District, the average size of the 195 farms in Blaine County is 1,102 acres. In 1997, 52 farms listed sales of less than $5,000 while 50 listed sales of $100,000 or more.

As for the county’s efforts to direct development away from the south county, Stevenson said he believes the county has the right to manage and guide growth.

"Growth is going to happen, but I hope it can be done in a controlled manner so agriculture isn’t impacted," Stevenson said. "Putting ranchettes down here on the headwaters of Silver Creek doesn’t seem like a good idea to me."

Stevenson said keeping the south county in productive agriculture is in the best interests of those who own the land.

"We don’t feel we’re sacrificing by not subdividing," Stevenson said. "We’re protecting our assets."

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Bill Molyneux came to the Wood River Valley in 1952 and bought 160 acres north of U.S. Route 20 for $5,300. He and his sons now farm 3,000 acres about a mile and a half east of Stevenson’s land. The family farms another 4,000 acres in Butte County—land they are still making payments on.

Bill MolyneuxLongtime south Blaine County farmer Bill Molyneux relies on the land for his income. “I love the smell of the ground when you turn it and the smell of fresh-mown hay,” he says. (Express photo by David M. Seelig)

 

Molyneux, 71, recalls working 14 hours a day, seven days a week to make ends meet, but says he wouldn’t change his lifestyle for all the money in the world.

"I love the smell of the ground when you turn it and the smell of fresh-mown hay," Molyneux said during an interview on his farm. "I love to see the seed grow and the land turn green. Someone that’s never done it, watched and prepared, they don’t know it."

Born and raised on a farm in Twin Falls, Molyneux is one of a few farmers in Blaine County who rely on the land as their sole source of income.

"You have to learn from the beginning of life to be a dedicated, profitable farmer," Molyneux said. "Either that or you have to have a bankroll behind you."

Molyneux said that if diversified and managed properly, smaller farms can turn a profit. However, Molyneux said, it isn’t easy.

"If it isn’t profitable then it’s your job to make it profitable," he said. "I’ve learned that if you stay home and take care of what you’ve got you can make money—but you have to get some breaks and use your head."

Molyneux said a farmer needs at least 300 acres to make a profit growing crops—but that some property owners in Blaine County can make money on 20-acre horse operations.

Despite the fact that he could now sell his land for a hefty profit, Molyneux made clear he intends to continue farming it. But he believes that as a matter of principle, government should not be compelling others to continue farming.

"I think a man should be able to do with his land what he wants to do," Molyneux said. Still, he added, "I don’t want to see the land covered up with houses, because I’m an ag man."

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Independent and strong willed, the farmers and ranchers of Blaine County don’t always see eye to eye. Despite their differences, however, Stevenson and Molyneux both share a common appreciation for the land and want to see the farmlands of the south county preserved.

Picabo rancher Katie Breckenridge owns a 1,600-acre spread about 10 miles down the road.

An outspoken advocate for the rights of property owners, Breckenridge tried to put the south county land-use debate into perspective in light of the struggle farmers and ranchers face against depressed market prices.

"The fight over land is as old as mankind, a very controversial and emotional issue driven by greed, money and love of the land," Breckenridge said in a telephone interview. "Ultimately we all (south county property owners) want to be farmers and ranchers, but realistically, can we afford to do it? That’s what it’s all about."

 

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