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Builders set sights on orchards, farms

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SANTAQUIN — A downturn in the fruit market and increasing values of orchard land could mean the end to a longtime industry in Utah County.

But it won't go quietly.

"The fruit industry is in its closing chapter," said Morris Ercanbrack, an orchardist who has fields of trees in Santaquin, Genola and Orem.

Ercanbrack, who wants to use 40 acres of his land for a subdivision, said farmers are pressured to sell their land. And few, he said, are able to resist the big bucks they are offered for the acreage — especially when small-farm owners and ranchers struggle to turn profits.

Whether farmers eventually subdivide largely depends on whether they're ready for a drastic lifestyle change, said Dean Miner, the Utah County director for the Utah State University agricultural extension office.

"If the kids in the family want to stick it out, farming will continue," he said. "If not, (farmers) will quit hitting their heads against the wall and sell out and enjoy it."

Fruit grower Robert McMullen is one who is resisting the lure of money. "As long as we can, we're going to stay in farming," he said.

Developers have approached him about his land — but those overtures have slowed. "I probably haven't seen (a developer) in the last year," he said.

But builders are still eyeing farmland — particularly in south Utah County, once known for its lush fields of fruit trees and other crops — as potential sites for houses.

Last December, Santaquin annexed more than 2,000 acres of grazing land, doubling its land mass. Several smaller annexations have been approved since then, city manager Roger Carter said. "We are constantly having inquiries," he said. "We recognize a pretty aggressive growth pattern in Santaquin."

While annexations are developer-driven, Santaquin doesn't annex without good reason, said Jim Bolser, a city planning consultant. Annexations often strain roads and utilities.

Nearby Genola recently opened more farmland for development by enacting a 2.5-acre zone — meaning that people can built one home per 2.5 acres.

Previously, the rural community had 5-acre zoning.

Elk Ridge, too, has a non-aggressive stance on annexation, Bolser said. He also consults for that community.

The City Council has started the process of annexing 50 acres of grazing land where Provo developer Geoffrey Granum envisions a gated community that could double the size of the town tucked in between Payson and Salem.

In neighboring Salem, C&A Development wants to develop more than 800 homes and condos on about 72 acres of cow pasture at the town's northern entrance.

The company projects as many as 418 new households over the next 10 to 15 years — if city leaders will allow the proposal to be built.

Salem officials tabled C&A's proposal on Wednesday to change part of the land from commercial to residential.

City leaders want to study the potential use of the land before rezoning it, Mayor Randy Brailsford said.

Those watching the loss of farmland and open fields of corn and alfalfa worry about encroaching development.

The Mountainland Association of Governments projects that in less than four years, south Utah County cities could grow by more than 10,000 people — from about 48,611 to 59,710.

E-MAIL: haddoc@desnews.com