Residential rumblings on Crook ranch land

57 percent of Measure 37 claims are concentrated in eastern part of county

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: May 17. 2007 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – As residential development continues at a torrid pace in Powell Butte and Prineville, smaller lots and new homes could make their way to the traditional ranch land in the eastern part of Crook County.

About 57 percent, or 24,000 acres, of the Measure 37 claims filed so far in Crook County are concentrated around the small town of Post. The claims are on rangeland that falls under the county’s most restrictive farm use zoning.

Combined, the claimants are asking the county for tens of millions of dollars in compensation or the waiver of regulations that prevent them from developing their property.

Jim Wood, one of the applicants and the owner of Aspen Valley Ranch, said his claim stems from concerns about the difficulty of continuing to run his ranch if new homes spring up around his property.

“We applied very late, and the biggest reason why we applied was because the growth that’s gone on in the county is making it increasingly difficult for us to operate,” Wood said. “Given that the county has been fairly flagrant about rezoning areas in the EFU-1, we’re concerned that eventually we’re going to be up against a rural residential neighborhood.”

Despite the huge acreage near Post covered by Measure 37 claims, Crook County Planning Director Bill Zelenka said the scale of future development is unclear. Right now, he said, many of the ranch areas have minimum lots sizes of 1,000 to 2,000 acres, but there were no zoning regulations when some of the claimants first acquired their land.

The claims in question do not include specific plans for building on or subdividing the properties.

“I think they filed just as a precautionary measure,” Zelenka said.

Measure 37 requires the government to waive regulations or compensate property owners for the loss of value to their land when land use rules put in after a person buys property reduces its value.

Wood called filing his claim a “desperate measure,” but added that he probably would not go ahead with subdividing his land if surrounding areas do not develop.

“We’re very pro-land use planning, but Measure 37 took the lid off of Pandora’s box,” he said. “If the trend, I guess, continues that we’re seeing in the EFU-1 with development and non-farm dwelling approvals, then I don’t see how we cannot go forward.”

Possible subdivisions

Post, which had a population of 104 at the time of the 2000 U.S. Census, lies about 30 miles southeast of Prineville and is only accessible via the two-lane Paulina Highway. The claims in the area come mainly from three landowners, Beverly and Oran Wolverton, Miller and Bettie Ann Tweedt, and the Aspen Valley Ranch.

Of the nearly 24,000 acres around Post with Measure 37 claims, the Aspen Valley Ranch owns more than 15,000 of them. Crook County has received a total of 72 Measure 37 claims, Planning Director Bill Zelenka said. They cover about 42,000 acres out of the county’s 1.8 million acres.

In addition to the Post applications, there are two large individual claims to the east and south of Prineville, and a handful of smaller ones scattered around the city and the Powell Butte area on the western edge of the county. So far, there has only been one Measure 37 claim within the Prineville city limits.

Wood said he asked the county to postpone making a decision on his claim until December to give the planning department more time to process all the claims and see if the state Legislature takes any action.

Aspen Valley Ranch’s Measure 37 claim states that Wood, who has owned the property since 1967, is asking for the “waiver of all land use restrictions put into effect after the date of purchase.” The claim sets the loss of value to the land due to the current regulations at $10 million.

The Tweedts’ and the Wolvertons’ claims have already been approved. Although the Wolvertons’ claim says the property has been owned by their family since 1958, Zelenka said the planning department determined that Beverly Wolverton has owned it since 1990, so the county will only waive land use regulations passed since that time. He said that means the zoning on their property would not change, unless the state Legislature creates new rules dealing with the transferability of property and Measure 37 claims.

Both the Tweedts’ and the Wolvertons’ claims state that they intend to “subdivide the property and sell buildable lots as they could have at the time (the lands) were acquired.” The current zoning in the area enforces large lot sizes that can only have one residence each.

The claimants are both represented by Redmond real estate agent Dennis Clark. Reached in his office, Clark said he did not want to comment. Neither of the applicants could be reached for comment.

Challenges of development

Zelenka said there could be problems with development in the area because of the poor quality of the roads. But he added that property owners or developers could still be required to do traffic impact analyses because Measure 37 does not require the government to waive health, safety and welfare regulations.

Crook County Judge Scott Cooper said the county has usually discouraged growth in such remote places.

“I don’t think that that’s an area of the county that we’re looking for a lot of development in,” Cooper said. “It’s certainly far from services (and) it’s not got good access to infrastructure, but Measure 37 is about property rights and if there’s a market for the property and people are interested in living that remotely, I guess more power to them.”

The Riverside Ranch subdivision, which lies near the Wolvertons’ property north of Post, is evidence of the need for planning if people want to develop land in such a remote area, Zelenka said. The subdivision has about 30 to 40 homes, he said, that do not have good access for roads or water. Since 2000, the county has required a minimum lot size of 20 acres for building in Riverside Ranch, but some of structures built before the rule went in sit on six to 12-acre lots, according to the planning department.

“This Riverside Ranch was an example that the state Legislature used on a tour that resulted in the subdivision law being passed in 1971,” Zelenka said. “The only difference today is we only waive the zoning restrictions (through Measure 37) … That’s all we’re waiving, because they have to show that the rules reduce the loss of value. Well, nobody’s proved that having a development properly done has reduced the loss in value.”

Wood also mentioned Riverside Ranch, which he said partially borders his property, as one of the reasons he decided to file a Measure 37 claim. Nearby residential subdivisions, he said, would make it increasingly difficult to operate a large-scale commercial ranch.

“The developers, they’re searching in our valley – they see us as the next best place,” he said. “We do not want to see that, but if happens on our boundaries, if it does happen, I see no choice. We will not be able to continue to operate as a commercial agricultural entity.”

While some of the Post area Measure 37 claims state that the owners intend to develop their land into multiple lots, Cooper said he thinks that many people filed claims without having a specific plan for building.

“Most people that are filing claims right now – not all, but most – are preserving their rights,” he said. “We may see development in years to come. Obviously, this is a one-time opportunity, and watching the Legislature, a lot of people are afraid that opportunity’s going to evaporate, so they’re getting them while they can.”

A market for rural living

So far, Zelenka said, only two of the county’s Measure 37 claims have involved subdividing land to add a single new dwelling. The planning department has received four applications for multifamily subdivisions that could add more than 230 new homes.

Candy Bowerman, the principal broker for Far West Real Estate and the owner of the Paulina Store, said she thinks there would be a market for 40- to 80-acre lots in the area of eastern Crook County.

“I hate to say ‘yes’ because I don’t want to see it happen, but yeah, I think everybody – it’s kind of like Powell Butte now – everybody wants to have some land now and have some horses, but they don’t have 5 or 6 million dollars for their own ranch,” Bowerman said.

Right now, she said, she has seven properties for sale in the Paulina area, but they are generally more difficult to sell than houses in the western part of the county.

Bowerman added that she thinks current residents of the area would not be happy with the changes.

“The old-timers are going to throw quite a fit about it,” she said. “They like keeping it (as) large ranches.”

Zelenka agreed, saying he does not think many residents want to see more development near Post and Paulina.

“At least at the time our ordinances were done, the ranchers didn’t want to have a lot of intrusion,” he said. “They may be very conservative out there, but government rules do help them out sometimes.”

Ultimately, Zelenka said, the difficulty of developing property in these remote areas, coupled with the lower real estate values, means that some of the developments may not come to fruition.

“There’s a lot of speculation going on and when the cost of development figures in, along with the real estate market, who knows what’s going to happen,” he said. “Most people just threw in (their claims).”

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