The "Trophy Homes" debate intrigued me. A mix of name-calling and conflicting stump speeches pitching open space versus economic development.
One of the values that attracted me here was the community's commitment to its working relationship to the land. This is a scarce commodity in America where less than 2 percent of the population lives and works on farms.
Most other countries have a greater percentage of their citizens engaged in food production and stewardship of agricultural lands. Many countries in Europe have policies designed to maintain 8 percent or more of the population in farming. Their citizens recognize the importance of an agrarian foundation. They seek to maintain a diverse set of skills and experience to respond to changing environmental conditions and changing human needs.
In the US, our policies have pursued short-term economic efficiency while sacrificing other social and environmental values. This path has contributed to significant technological innovation and our current economic strength. But it's also expanded the gap between rich and poor, and generated a range of environmental stresses that we don't fully comprehend. Trends in the county highlight some of these issues.
Over the last ten years per capita income in Wallowa County has increased by two thousand dollars from about $19,000 to $21,000. During the same period, the median price of homes increased three-fold from less than $40,000 to nearly $120,000. Meanwhile, total farm income (crops and livestock) dropped from about $2 million to NEGATIVE $9 million.
That's right, most farms in Wallowa County are losing money. They've been losing money for several years. Between 1990 and 2000, Gross Farm Sales rose marginally from $30 million to about $32.5 million, while farm costs have increased significantly. Diesel fuel, fertilizer, machinery parts and repairs, electricity, telephones, labor, etc. have all increased between 4-10 percent annually.
The challenge posed by real estate development reflects a national undervaluing of farmlands and farmers. We need to address this head on. If farming can't compete with alternative land use, we will lose farm production and farmers. No amount of land use planning will prevent that. Luckily, we've got time to address this issue.
John Williams at the extension office tells me that farm acreage in the County has held steady since 1960. We are not currently in the midst of massive land fragmentation, nor facing imminent threat to our open, agricultural lands.
Despite these trends, I understand the threat is real. The five fastest growing states in the U.S. are all Western neighbors (Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Idaho) where land use laws are less strict than in Oregon. Nevada is currently growing at 66 percent per year. Against that kind of pressure, regulation is an important tool - but in Wallowa County we've already got good protections in place, we don't need more. Here we need to figure out how to make farming more profitable.
A simple reliance on regulation to control development raises serious equity concerns. Rising property value is the only thing that most farmers have to show for the love, sweat and tears they've given their land. If the general public values open lands, and working landscapes, they need to figure out how to reward farmers not penalize them.
In the 1980's I worked with the State of Massachusetts' Open Space Plan, which formed in response to significant development across their rural landscape. Farmers across Western Massachusetts were selling land, and using the income to buy farms three times larger in upstate New York. The people of Massachusetts recognized the underlying economic pressures and passed a number of credit and subsidy programs to entice farmers to stay in the State - much the same way that many States offer pro-business incentives to auto-makers and other manufacturers.
In Colorado, several counties have initiated a program to purchase development rights on open agricultural lands. The purchase of development rights does not retire such rights - it merely transfers them to a new owner. The purchase is typically a cash payment and not a tax credit (which does little good for a farm operation losing money).
County programs to purchase development rights counteract threats of fragmentation today, and maintain the option to sell such rights in the future.
These kinds of solutions take more time and creativity than regulations. If we want to keep our farms and ranches, all of us need to work with the private sector and government to generate relevant and appropriate incentives that keep our farmers in business. We need to find ways to express positive value for open and productive agricultural land, rather than continually depressing its development value. We need programs that help farmers pursue innovation, reduce expenditure on inputs and machinery, and pursue higher value markets. In the long run, such solutions are more sustainable and more equitable.
Lets promote and support trophy farms and we won't need to worry about trophy homes.