Writers on the Range

Let’s talk about the ‘Z’ word before damage is done

By Linda M. Hasselstrom
Writers on the Range

I am a rancher in a ranching community, so I imagine you’re not surprised to learn that we don’t like anyone else to tell us what we can do with our land.

This worked when we all raised cattle. Even when some folks started raising sheep or buffalo, we generally got along. Recently, however, our county of around 8,500 people has seen subdivisions sprout like mushrooms after a rain: A 2010 study counted 524 separate developments in the works.

Then, after the need for it was already acute, county officials finally began to discuss zoning. Problems were mounting: An airport next to one group of homes wanted to expand; developers demanded roads to areas they wanted to plat.

Here’s just one example of the consequences we faced because we lacked zoning. Near my small hometown a few years ago, developers built a subdivision in a creek’s ancient and well-documented floodplain. Homebuyers were told that town government had “taken the subdivision out of the floodplain.” This meant the town council required the developer to raise homes one foot above ground level. The developer did this by putting a couple of concrete blocks at each corner of each house.

One night, floodwater from a heavy rain damaged or destroyed 34 of the subdivision’s 36 houses. Fortunately, the flood occurred while residents were awake, so nobody was killed. But many residents soon learned their insurance failed to cover their losses because their homes were located in a floodplain. And no one wanted to buy their damaged homes.

An entire house — and everything that had been stored under the other 35 — floated into my hayfield. Neighbors eventually piled the huge mess into a mound of car parts, gas cans, stored pesticides, lawn mowers, trees, dead pets and other debris. The weed-covered mound contains at least 23,000 cubic feet of waste.

The town tried to make me remove the garbage; I pointed out that I did not create it. Everyone who did — subdivision residents, the town and county officials — declined responsibility.

Homeowners lost their houses and possessions. We repaired our fences, but my hayfield and ranching business were permanently damaged by greed and government’s failure to plan.  

Zoning would have helped

Intelligent zoning would have banned housing development in the floodplain and saved the county thousands of dollars in cleanup costs. It would have allowed the water to flow, preventing a flood and eliminating risk to people’s lives. The hayfield could have continued its auxiliary function as wildlife habitat, benefiting people by feeding and sheltering wild turkeys, deer, antelope, herons and other wildlife. There would have been no need for lawsuits from property owners damaged by the flood. I sought neither sympathy nor compensation for the garbage pile, and after several years it still covers several acres of formerly valuable land.

This happened because county residents stubbornly resisted zoning. But if a community doesn’t make zoning choices, someone else does. One developer made a decision that led to flooding that might have killed his customers, and the town and county let him get away with it. 

A common response these days to community concerns is a shrug and denial because it’s “not my problem.” But lack of zoning is everyone’s problem. Why not discuss what we might tolerate before a neighbor opens up a confined animal operation of 1,000 chickens or imports 60 rusty automobiles or 180 pigs?

With more subdivisions being platted upstream, I must now consider what I can do with my property. Before the flood, I was considering making a gift of the fields or selling them at a low price to the town as a recreational space, kept free of homes precisely because of the danger of flooding. Now, I’m not inclined to make such a gift to a town that has shown such irresponsibility. And if encroaching housing developments make it difficult for me to keep cattle there, I won’t put lives at risk by allowing housing. Besides, who’d want a house next to 23,000 tons of garbage? To develop the land, I’d have to choose a business that could afford to haul away all that junk.

Sometimes I wonder why we irrationally choose not to learn from experience. Why do we let prejudice blind us to the need to plan for a responsible future? I’m not afraid of the “Z word”; what I’m really afraid of is doing nothing and letting developers rule the roost.

Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She ranches in South Dakota and is the author of several books about the West.