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As homes move in, a rural West Valley community feels pushed out

Posted at 7:34 PM, May 13, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-13 22:34:23-04

WITTMANN, AZ — Like clockwork cattle that graze near Sherry Krueger's home appear every day.

"Every morning and every evening, the same time they come by," she said. "They have a cycle: 6:30 In the morning, 6:30 at night."

It's exactly what she signed up for when she purchased her home on three acres of land in Wittmann 10 years ago.

"A rural community, to me is the type of community where there's equestrians, and there's cattle and people have livestock," she told ABC15.

Wittmann, in unincorporated Maricopa County, is located just south of Wickenburg off US 60.

It is a rural community of about 800 people, surrounded by largely undeveloped land owned by the City of Surprise and State Trust Land that ranchers lease to graze their cattle.

The freedom that comes with a rural community is exactly what attracted Krueger to it.

"One thing that was very important to me was that I could get on and ride my horse out," she said.

But the space to do that is getting smaller, as housing developments get closer.   

Krueger walked us around her property to show just how close a proposed development of more than 1,500 homes would be.

"Literally this housing development would flank [my] particular property on two sides," she said.

The subdivision is called Walden Ranch.

Right now, it is zoned R-43 which allows for no more than one house per acre.

The owner, Phoenix based Cowley Companies, is applying to rezone 520 acres to R1-6 zoning which allows three to five units per acre and to include commercial buildings.

It's a change that would effectively turn the rural area suburban.

"That changes the dynamic of a rural community. That now means complaints about your horses, and I don't like cattle, I don't want flies and I don't want dust," she said. "Country type people want to grow their own food and they want to ride horses, and it's just a different breed of person. There's nothing wrong with either one. It's just two different breeds."

The other type of people in the area are the ranchers whose cattle are scattered throughout the countryside.

Arizona's open range policy allows cattle to roam freely in rural areas where there is no fencing.

Bob Haymes who owns B Bar D Ranch has about 200 cattle that graze 100 square miles of the area surrounding Wittmann. He said the more buildings that go up, the less pasture they have.

"Up until five years ago or so we never had any problems," he told ABC15. "At the rate it's going now you're gonna see more and more problems. More and more cows getting hit on the road. More and more people complaining cows in their yard, tearing up their lawn and their trees."

Eventually he fears ranchers will be pushed out altogether.

"They're just pushing us out faster and faster every year," he said.

Danielle Corral, with Local First Arizona manages the organization's Farmland Preservation Program, which was formed in 2020 to help small to medium agricultural operations in Maricopa County that are threatened with losing their land.

"When you we lose a farm from a personal perspective, someone's lost their livelihood, their business, where they live, their culture, they usually also can be a multigenerational farmer. So, they've lost that legacy," she said. "And then as citizens as community members, we've lost that direct connection to our food source to learning about where food comes from."

She said land is being lost so quickly to development they have a hard time keeping track.

The group cites data from the Maricopa Association of Governments that says in 2020 there were 640 square miles of agricultural land and 540 square miles of residential land.

By 2019 agricultural land decreased to 410 square miles and residential increased to 750 square miles.

"Maybe even a larger part portion of my job is just making the case for farmland and agriculture. Why do we need it? Why is it still something that we should plan for?"

The program tries to convince city and county planners to include agricultural land in their general plans just as housing developments and economic projects are included.

"So if you're saying we're going to change something from a rural denomination to something that can be totally built up, how are you planning for that? How are you going to accommodate how this changes the rural environment?" Corral said. "If you don't plan for it, that's when we run up to two cultures are butting heads, and you're trying to have an urban environment in a rural."

While Wittmann and the surrounding area have been rural for its entire existence, general plans for Maricopa County and the nearby City of Surprise show they have laying the groundwork to urbanize the areas for years. 

The County approved Walden Ranch land use plans to build 1572 houses back in 2006.  Only now have the owners applied to change the zoning to start the process to break ground.

Attorney William Lally who represents Walden Ranch sent ABC15 a statement saying in part, "The intent of this long-term planning is to allow for prudent growth that factors in regional water, traffic, schools and environmental concerns."

He also referenced the recent sale of 3,500 acre of State Trust Land to BNSF Railway for a logistics hub that is expected to bring 6,000 workers to the area.

"No one in Wittmann is naive," Krueger told ABC15. "And no one thinks that this is going to stay desert forever. We just want to see this zoning stay the same one house per acre. That's it."

But for Haymes and the other ranchers in the area, every acre developed is a threat to their livelihoods.

"I'm gonna fight this deal until I can't fight it any longer," Haymes said. And I'll have cows here until I run out of cows, or they throw dirt in my face."