Early in April 2000, I attended the auction of a ranch near my own, in a rural western South Dakota county that has resisted zoning. This is my report from the front lines where the real battle of the West is being fought -- with money.
The ranch was advertised as a single unit of 1,977
acres, or as "nine Tracts, 75 to 680 acres." Neighboring ranchers
hoped the ranch would sell as ranch land, but doubted it. The
auctioneers printed a color brochure; locals chuckled that a tract
advertised as "wooded" contained only one tree.
beginning of the sale, an auctioneer mumbled something about a
"proposed highway." Ten minutes later, he urged a bidder, "Where
else are you going to find a site like this on a four-lane divided
highway?" But auctioneers can't be held responsible for their
remarks; their job is to make money for the seller. The buyer's job
is to beware.
One prospective buyer, who had driven into
a tract to inspect it, set a fire that consumed his pickup, a
half-acre of my neighbor's grass and my shed. He was astonished at
how much his house-in-the-country fantasy had already cost before
auction day, including the bills from the volunteer fire department
and a neighboring rancher who fought the fire. Posted signs had
warned of extreme fire danger, and neighbors held him responsible
for his actions -- part of living in the country.
auction began, an electronic screen listed the nine tracts of land.
Individual tracts were offered one by one, and the prospective
buyer's per-acre offer listed on the screen. At that point, the
sale had already made history in our county. One bidder offered
more than $1,000 an acre for two parcels totaling 150 acres, with
no well or other improvements.
How much, we wondered,
would this sale cost us when our property taxes were next assessed?
In the second round, bidders could buy the whole ranch.
The auctioneer began soliciting bids at $600 an acre, then dropped
to $500. The two auctioneers conferred, then announced that they
would not sell the ranch as a unit for less than the average of the
"hold" bids, $485 an acre. Auction ringmen ingmen moved through the
room pointing at various buyers, trying to make somebody nervous
enough to raise a hand. The auctioneer lectured, "There's some of
you that can afford to buy this whole ranch, and you're gonna be
sorry tomorrow that you didn't do it."
After a recess,
the auctioneers again offered the tracts of land one by one. Some
bidders raised their hands for the first time, now they knew every
one else's limit. Observers whispered, "He's a doctor," or, "He's
in real estate." After the auctioneer's cry of "Going once, going
twice," each tract was labeled "sold" on the screen in the front of
When the last sale was over, neighbors crowded
around a rancher who had kept bidding, determined to own a piece of
land in the heart of his ranch so it wouldn't become a home site.
His face was the color of the grass I've found growing under old
Most of the other buyers plan to subdivide. For
150 acres, one bidder agreed to pay $157,500, or $1,050 per acre,
saying he plans to raise horses. I own 157 acres across the
highway, now assessed at $218.68 per acre.
sale, the widow wandered around the room, almost in tears, saying
"I didn't think they'd sell it in pieces; I thought somebody would
buy the whole thing." No one listened. If she really believed a
rancher would buy the land, she was the only one in the room who
thought so. But her children didn't want to ranch.
high bidders paid a total of $1.4 million, about an average of $731
an acre. The ranchers in the room shook their heads, knowing that
cows would never pay for the land. Fewer ranchers means more
subdivisions. More subdivisions mean more trash and more people in
my pastures, hunting, driving ATVs; more dropped cigarettes, more
fires fought by our volunteer fire department. Fewer deer will
graze down my meadow; they can't get through the homeowners' dogs,
who range my pastures all day. It means higher taxes, lower water
levels; less chance any of my neighbors can afford to buy my whole
ranch if I, too, must sell.
More subdivisions, less open
space. Less chance to see the sun rise over open prairie instead of
roofs. What do more subdivisions mean to you?