Battle brewing over ridge top 'trophy homes'

This non-farm parcel north of Alpine Golf Course on a ridge top near Enterprise will be used by the Wallowa County Planning Department to illustrate why new design standards are needed in the Exclusive Farm Use zone. Proposed standards regulating ridge top homes will be considered Aug. 27 during a public hearing before the Wallowa County Planning Commission. Photo by Rick Swart

A proposal to limit construction of 'trophy homes' along Wallowa County ridge tops is shaping up as the epicenter of a land use battle to be aired during a public hearing later this month.

The Wallowa County Planning Commission on Aug. 27 will be considering design standards which would restrict construction of large homes along the skyline of properties in the Exclusive Farm Use (EFU) zone.

The standards would affect roughly 1,000 farm use parcels which could be divided into three smaller lots under a new land use law adopted last year by the Oregon Legislature.

"I look at it as my little contribution to cleaning up the skyline of Wallowa County," said Wallowa County Planning Director Bill Oliver, who authored the proposed standards.

Dave Brandt, president of the Wallowa County Board of Realtors, says the proposed standards are just the latest attempt by the planning department to "squash any type of economic development."

"They're going crazy with 'what ifs' and 'what coulds' and 'what mights' and stopping every little bit of growth that could occur in this county," said Brandt.

The issue of ridge top homes surfaced last month when Brandt applied for a permit to subdivide a 209-acre parcel of land in the Crow Creek area into two 20-acre parcels and one larger "parent" parcel. His proposal was based on House Bill 3326, adopted during the 2001-02 state legislative session. Under that legislation land within the EFU zone can be divided into three smaller parcels as long as one of the three meets the 160-acre minimum lot size in the EFU zone.

Oliver said that Brandt's application was the first of several applications in the pipeline under HB 3326, and that two two more were also received from Dave and Darlene Turner. Thinking the new legislation might trigger an onslaught of such applications the planning director compiled an inventory of properties in the EFU zone and concluded that more than 1,000 could be divided into smaller lots. Taken to the extreme, he said, virtually every ridge top in Wallowa County could be dotted with trophy homes.

In light of the potential onslaught of non-farm homes Oliver drafted design standards based on those adopted earlier this year for protection of the Wallowa Lake basin. The planning commission haggled over those standards for more than for years. A cornerstone of those standards was a concept called "visual subordination." Simply put, visual subordination means that any new structures, and particularly those which interrupt the skyline, must be blend in to the surrounding landscape. To assure that their structures are visually subordinate to the landscape applicants must agree to limits on height, color, and type of building materials. They also must submit design and management plans that ensure their structures and improvements "utilize appropriate scale, shape, configuration, line, and horizontal or vertical orientation to imitate and blend into the existing land form."

Oliver maintains that the standards are needed because without them construction of large homes upon lands traditionally used for farming could forever alter the custom and culture of Wallowa County.

"We have never had any controls about the type of home that can be built in the Exclusive Farm Use zone," he said.

Until recently, standards weren't needed, he said, because farm homes were built by farmers. Those homes were "modest and reasonable" and typically built near a road and in a draw that was protected from the elements.

"Farmers don't build big houses on ridge tops because of the wind and weather," said Oliver, adding, "Up to now we haven't needed controls in those areas because economics and common sense dictated the kind of homes and where they were built."

The economics of farming now have nothing to do with the kinds homes that are being built on ridge tops.

"They want to be able to look down on everybody else ... it's whatever they can afford," he said.

Realtors don't dispute that people build on ridge tops because of the views.

That's precisely the point, they say.

"People like to build on the ridge tops because of the views," said Ken Wick, the broker/owner of Real Estate Associates in Joseph. "The places they want to build is rock, knob, scabby hillside that isn't productive anyway. All that property has got is view."

Lee Daggett, broker/owner of the GMAC real estate franchise in Enterprise, questions whether the people of Wallowa County don't want ridge top developments or whether Oliver is taking the view of "a small faction of people that doesn't want growth."

"I would suggest that most of the people in Wallowa County don't want to suppress growth," Daggett said.

Furthermore, trophy homes bring in jobs and tax dollars to the county, according to John Gorsline, broker owner of Wallowa Mountain Properties. Gorsline said that if the public wants to keep houses off of the ridge tops, the perhaps the public should compensate the owners for that.

The real estate brokers say they have a responsibility to stand up for individual property rights because it is the kind of issue that nobody is concerned with until their property is the one that is being affected.

"People do not care until it affects them directly," said Wick. "What they do not understand is that for most people real estate is their largest investment and that they need to protect it."

The real estate brokers suggest that Oliver is on a power trip. In June, Brand, representing the Board of Realtors, sent a letter to the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners saying that Oliver had "over stepped his position" and adopted "a mind-set of zero growth."

Oliver disputes that characterization, saying that is philosophy is supporting sensible growth that takes into account the custom and culture of the county.

"We have to take into account what all the people of this county want, not just one group," he said. If he was against growth, he added, he would not have advised adopting the new non-farm partition rule in the first place.

"The county can choose to be more restrictive than the state," he said, "and we haven't done that."

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