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Ranchers eye plan

Sheila Gardner

David Hussman is the fourth-generation rancher to run the family’s 560 acres along Highway 395 just south of Gardnerville. The historic property has survived drought and flood, fluctuating agriculture prices and encroaching development.

Now, Hussman and his wife Kathi are willing to be guinea pigs in an exchange program to sell off their property’s development rights to the federal government.

If the transaction is successful, the Hussmans and other supporters of the purchase of development rights see the process as a way to combine the best of both worlds – paying ranchers, farmers and other willing large property owners to keep the Carson Valley green.

“Everybody we’ve talked to thinks it’s a really good idea,” said Kathi Hussman. “This will enable us to take the development rights totally away from our piece of property and make it agriculture forever.”

The purchase of development rights will be financed by the sale of Bureau of Land Management property in Las Vegas or rural Nevada where private land is at a premium. The BLM takes the money from the sale and uses it to purchase development rights from private landowners.

“It’s almost ironic that Las Vegas is getting this big chunk of land so they can just grow, boom, boom, boom, and we’re benefiting from it by having the money to keep us a little more open,” she said.

The Hussmans will be giving up any right to develop their property, but they will be reimbursed and be able to keep their land. Without development rights, the land price would be considerably lower, which would make it feasible for other people who want to ranch or farm to afford the property if the Hussmans decide to sell.

“This is not a county project at all,” Hussman said. “The county is not sponsoring it in any way, nor is there any county money involved.”

She said the ranching community has been much more receptive to the concept than transfer of development rights which was adopted in the county’s 1996 master plan.

The goal is similar – compensating landowners for the development value of the land – but the TDR system relies on the free market transfer of development rights from the open land to development areas as opposed to governmental acquisition or purchase of development rights.

The purchase of development rights is being facilitated by the American Land Conservancy, which has an office in Minden.

John Singlaub, district manager for the Carson City office of BLM, said he, county commission chairman and ranch manager Jacques Etchegoyhen, and ALC Minden project manager Ame Hellman met Thursday night with about a dozen members of the Douglas County Farm Bureau.

“The meeting went great,” Singlaub said. “They were concerned about the nature of the rights that we’re purchasing and how the values would be determined.

“The most important thing is that we’re trying to purchase conservation easements – the development right itself. We’re not interested in water or access. We haven’t had any appraisals done yet, but we’re thinking for a lot of those, 80 percent of the value is in development, but we don’t know that.”

Singlaub said the exchange could take as long as a year.

“The most time-consuming aspect is doing clearance on the public land that will be transferred to private ownership. That’s the main reason we’re working with ALC. They can facilitate that work much faster than we can,” Singlaub said.

“This takes the pressure off us worrying about what’s going to happen to this land in 20 years,” Hussman said. “That has always been a concern. We’ve just agonized over it.”

She estimated it will take at least a year for the transaction to be facilitated.

“We’re going to end up being the guinea pigs. We think somebody has to be and we really believe in it,” she said.

Hussman said the project is voluntary, and if she and her husband disagree with the BLM appraisal of their property, they can end negotiations.

“This is a perfect piece of property to do it on,” she said. “It’s by the river and it’s in the flood plain which is property in years past which people didn’t want development on. It’s visible. People always comment as they drive by how much they like to see our fields, lambs and cows.

“It also benefits the Carson Valley because people say they want to keep the land in agriculture. My opinion has always been if they want me to stay in ag, they are going to have to pay me for it. The water right is always tied to the land – that’s the whole point in keeping it in agriculture. If you don’t keep the water with it, a piece of property is only dirt and weeds.

“It puts a little money in our pocket to improve our operation,” she said. “Believe me, it won’t take much to make us rich. David’s got a 1932 tractor and we could use a new backhoe. We’ve had to keep our excitement in check. We’re sitting around saying this is too good to be true, that there has to be something wrong with it. We just can’t find what it is.”

Ranchers interviewed Thursday had questions about the concept.

“My only concern is that the government never gives you anything for nothing,” said Renee Mack. “I know there has to be a cloud on the title when you take the development rights off. It sounds wonderful, it sounds spectacular, but my experience is that there have to be some strings.”

Mack said she questioned how the government will establish property values.

“Is our property more valuable because it’s developable instead of wetlands?” she asked. “I would love it, too, if it all works out like they say.”

For John and Virginia Henningsen, whose 240-acre ranch has been in the family since 1861, there are many questions.

“Number one, do we without question retain ownership of the land and use it as we wish? We don’t want it turned over to the BLM or Forest Service or anything like that,” Virginia Henningsen said. “We want complete jurisdiction over what happens. That doesn’t mean it goes to rack and ruin. Somebody has be an overseer to make sure it doesn’t turn into sagebrush. We don’t want that.

“Can we get water to the land always? Would we be able to put a house on it?” Henningsen asked.

“It’s a big step,” she said. “We’d have to know a lot more about it. It would be a good thing for the farmer in that he could be paid something for the development right at the same time giving up the option of developing forever. Forever is a long time. You don’t want to do the wrong thing.”

The Henningsens sold off their cows in 1993 and no longer operate a dairy.

“Our children are not interested in a dairy, but they all loved the ranch and would love to run or manage it. It’s just not lucrative enough so a family could live here without outside income,” she said. “Either the husband or the wife would have to have an outside job.”

Rancher Dal Byington, too, is cautiously optimistic. He and his son Russel run the family’s 1,000-acre ranch. With nearby, smaller parcels for sale at asking prices of $6,000 to $7,500 per acre, Byington sees the potential.

“It sounds too good to be true. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he said. “If it’s realistic, it would really be a good thing for the Valley. Most of the property is ag land, owned by fewer and fewer families. There’s no way ranching can exist in this Valley on an agricultural basis. It’s just too expensive. The development is here.

“If the government offers you a certain amount of money per acre that you’ll sign a deed restriction from here to eternity that that land will always be an ag property, that would leave me, or anyone else still here, an opportunity to maintain a lifestyle. You don’t make that much money off ranching. With that money sitting in the bank, you could live off the interest and realize a life-time investment,” he said.

Singlaub said interest is high in Carson Valley.

“Once property owners understand that we’re not after water rights or the land itself and that participation is strictly voluntary, they realize it might be worth trying,” he said. “I want to emphasize that there has been support all around at every meeting we’ve been to. We’ve been trying to ferret out if there’s any opposition, but so far we haven’t found it.”