As homes move, the rural community of West Valley feels pushed out

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WITTMANN, AZ – Show up every day like cattle grazing near Sherry Kruger’s house.

“Every morning and every evening, at the same time they come,” she said. “They have a course: 6:30 a.m., 6:30 p.m..”

That’s exactly what she had in common when she bought her home on three acres of land in Whitman 10 years ago.

“A rural society to me is the kind of society where there are horsemen, there are cattle and people have cattle,” she told ABC15.

Wittmann, in unincorporated Maricopa County, is located 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 rent to graze their livestock.

The freedom that comes with rural community is exactly what drew Kruger to him.

“The one thing that was very important to me was that I could ride my horse and ride,” she said.

But the space to do so is dwindling as housing projects approach.

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

“Literally this residential development will surround it [my] and certain properties on both sides.”

The subdivision is called Walden Ranch.

Currently, zone R-43 is designated which allows no more than one home per acre.

The owner, the Phoenix-based Cowley Companies, is moving forward with the rezoning of 520 acres to R1-6 allowing three to five units per acre and including commercial buildings.

It is a change that will effectively transform the rural area into the suburbs.

“This is changing the dynamic of the rural community,” she said. “Now that means complaints about your horses, and I don’t like cattle, I don’t want flies and I don’t want dust.” “Country type people want to grow their own food and they want to ride horses, and it’s just a different breed of people. There’s nothing wrong with either. They’re just two different breeds.”

The other type of people in the area are the ranchers whose livestock are spread all over the countryside.

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

Bob Haymes who owns B Bar D Ranch has about 200 head of cattle grazing 100 square miles of the area around Wittmann. He said that the higher the number of buildings, the fewer pastures.

“Until five or so years ago, we didn’t have any problems,” he told ABC15. “At the rate things are going now, you’re going to see more and more problems. More and more cows getting hit on the road. More and more people are complaining about cows in their yard, tearing down their lawn and trees.”

Eventually he feared that the plantation owners would be expelled altogether.

“They’re pushing us out faster and faster every year,” he said.

Danielle Corral, with Local First Arizona, runs the organization’s Farmland Preservation Program, which was formed in 2020 to help small and medium farming operations in Maricopa County threatened by the loss of their land.

“When we lose a farm from a personal perspective, someone loses their livelihood, their business, their place of residence, their culture and usually also a multigenerational farmer. So, they lost that legacy,” she said. “And then, as citizens as members of the community, we lose that direct connection to our food source to learn about the food source.”

She said land is being lost very quickly to development, which makes it hard to keep track.

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

By 2019, farmland had decreased to 410 square miles and residential area had increased to 750 square miles.

“Maybe a bigger part of my job is just to present the issue of farmland and agriculture. Why do we need it? Why is it still something we should plan for?”

The program attempts to persuade city and county planners to include agricultural land in their overall plans just as housing and economic projects are included.

“If you’re saying we’re going to change something from a rural sect to something that can be completely built, how do you plan for that? How are you going to adapt to how this rural environment changes?” Coral said. “If you’re not planning on that, then we’re experiencing what amount to two contrasting cultures, and you’re trying to have an urban environment in a rural area.”

While Wittmann and the surrounding area have been rural for their entire existence, general plans for Maricopa County and the nearby town of Surprise show that they laid the foundation for urbanization of the areas for years.

The county approved plans to use Walden Ranch’s land to build 1,572 homes in 2006. Only now the owners have applied for a zoning change to begin the process to begin work.

Attorney William Lally representing Walden Ranch sent a statement to ABC15 saying in part, “The intent of this long-term planning is to allow for prudent growth that impacts territorial waters, traffic, schools and environmental concerns.”

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

“Nobody at Whitman is gullible,” Krueger told ABC15. “And nobody thinks this will remain a desert forever. We just want to see this division remain the same home per acre. That’s it.”

But for Hymes and other ranchers in the area, every acre that is developed is a threat to their livelihood.

“I’m going to fight this deal until I can’t fight it anymore,” Hymes said. And I will have cows here until the cows run out, or he throws dirt in my face.”

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