Is the West’s way of life dying? Rabid housing market devouring scarce horse property
‘Money talks’: Growth, development pressures gobbling up increasingly rare agricultural land
Marie and Peter Gessel’s new home in Riverton is nestled smack in the middle of what, at first impression, appears to be a typical suburban neighborhood along Utah’s Wasatch Front.
Curb and gutters, street lamps and brick mailboxes line the street. Their neighbors’ homes sit fairly close together but are spaced just enough for decent-sized front yards. They’re bordered by white vinyl privacy fences.
Unassuming passersby likely wouldn’t be able to guess their home — and several of their neighbors — have an array of hoofed and feathered animals living behind those fences.
“Yeah, you wouldn’t think this is a horse property,” Marie Gessel told the Deseret News as she opened the gate to her backyard.
Sophie and Fancy, the Gessels’ two horses, impatiently paced their stalls and nickered loudly at Marie Gessel as she rounded the corner. They were done waiting for their breakfast.
“I know, you’re hungry,” Marie Gessel called back.
It’s been quite the adjustment — and emotional roller coaster ride — for the Gessels, who moved to Utah from the outskirts of Boise, Idaho, after Marie’s husband, Peter, accepted a job at a Salt Lake City law firm as a water and agricultural attorney.
They downsized to a half-acre, just enough for their two horses. They left behind a 12-acre farm, where they also raised pigs, chickens, Thanksgiving turkeys and other barn animals.
Marie Gessel said they would have stayed there had the job opportunity not cropped up. Plus, she said they grew tired of the fields around them turning into neighborhoods.
“I watched the houses literally marching through the agricultural fields. Like, in the five years we were there the growth was incredible,” she said. “Of course it’s the fields that go first because they’re flat and they’re easy (to develop). I don’t blame the people selling the fields. People are paying ridiculous amounts of money for them.”
The West’s housing market was sizzling even before the COVID-19 pandemic ignited a feeding frenzy. More Americans, set free by remote work, left big cities in search of larger lots at smaller price points. In 2020 and 2021, states like Utah and Idaho saw record-shattering years for home sales and price increases.
Naturally, as demand continues to outpace supply, homebuilders can’t build fast enough. And as prices increase, that puts even more pressure on developers to subdivide. That means larger lots are becoming an increasingly scarce — and increasingly valuable — commodity. The result? Agricultural land is getting gobbled up at even faster rates.
“Ultimately, we were just tired of that growth just overtaking everything,” Marie Gessel said.
But it’s the same story in Utah, which recently outranked even Idaho, its closest Western competitor, for its boiling housing market. This month, the site Realtor.com ranked the Salt Lake City metro area as the No. 1 housing market in the nation positioned for growth in 2022, forecasted to see a striking 15.2% year-over-year growth in sales and a 8.5% year-over-year increase in prices. Boise came in close behind in the No. 2 slot.
In Utah, larger lots are steadily giving way to housing developments. The state continues to be one of the fastest growing in the nation. Open parcels are becoming increasingly rare, especially along the state’s urban corridor known as the Wasatch Front, where about 80% of Utah’s over 3.3 million people live.
Still, Marie Gessel said they’re happy they ended up in a 20-year-old neighborhood that’s already been built out — but still allows her family a “slice” of their small farm.
Marie Gessel jokes that she likes to “pretend we’ve escaped” the growth. “It’s stable,” she said. “It’s probably not going to change a whole heck of a lot.”
She and her husband feel incredibly lucky, she said, to have found a home where she can keep their horses. Even though the neighborhood itself sits in the midst of suburbia, the Gessels’ neighbors’ backyards converge into a sort of shared agricultural haven.
In the mornings, she can hear her neighbors’ roosters crow.
“It’s good for my heart,” she said.
But finding that Riverton home — in a neighborhood that’s agriculturally zoned to allow large animals like horses but close enough to downtown Salt Lake City for a reasonable commute — was no easy feat. Especially in Utah’s 2021 housing market.
‘Dollar signs. They’re like a drug’
When they began house hunting in May, Marie Gessel said they saw only two Wasatch Front horse properties hit the market that fit their price range. And they were on a tight timeline because their 12-acre Idaho property sold lightning fast.
That experience itself foreshadowed what they’d be up against in Utah’s market.
“We had someone offer us cash,” she said, ready to pay $850,000 upfront. “But his first question was, ‘How can I subdivide this?’”
That alone made the Gessels reluctant to sell to that buyer, she said. Instead, they wanted to sell to someone that wouldn’t develop the land. “For us, it was really important to find someone who would love the property the way we had and really plan on being there for the long run,” Marie Gessel said.
They sold to a family who paid $825,000, she said, who pledged it would be “their forever place” for their kids and horses. “It’s just so nice to know it got passed on to someone who isn’t going to subdivide it,” she said.
To Marie Gessel, that choice to ignore the highest bid may have given her family the karma they needed to find a seller that would do the same for them. The Riverton home’s seller also passed up a larger bid of $750,000 — $35,000 more than the Gessel’s bid of $715,000.
The highest bidder would have used it for a construction company to store materials, the Gessels’ seller, who declined to be named for this story for privacy reasons, told the Deseret News. She said she didn’t want to see the stalls and fences she had installed herself get “torn out.”
“I was like, ‘Yeah, there’s no way I’m selling this house to you,’” the seller said. Though she added, “Dollar signs. They’re like a drug. It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s a lot of money.’ But when it comes down to the preserving of the land and what it was meant to be for originally, the dollar signs didn’t matter.”
To the seller, horse property is more than land to keep farm animals. It represents the Western way of life — a lifestyle that’s buckling to market forces as states like Utah and Idaho boom. Horses, themselves, are symbols of the West, she said.
“It’s the legacy of the West,” she said. “California used to be just as Western as Utah, Arizona, Idaho. ... People have choked out the horse property.”
Why the market is gobbling up horse property
While people like the Gessels and their sellers who may pass up higher offers out of concern for their properties’ futures do exist, that’s not typically what happens.
Usually sellers pick the highest bid — for obvious reasons, Utah-based real estate agents who specialize in selling larger lots like horse properties told the Deseret News.
It’s for that reason agricultural land in states like Utah, especially along the Wasatch Front, is becoming increasingly more rare and, therefore, more expensive.
“Money talks,” said John Lucky, a real estate agent and a member of the Salt Lake Board of Realtors, who specializes in higher-end properties, including horse properties and resort properties in areas like Park City.
It’s a reality that Lucky has come to accept (and one that now puts food on his table), even though he understands and appreciates the equine life. He grew up showing and breeding horses, and his family had a horse feed and tack store in Midvale. But they sold in 2007 because they saw the writing on the wall of a dwindling lifestyle and a dying business.
“The horse industry as I knew it was going away, and it was going a way pretty quick,” he said.
“One of the reasons I got into real estate was because I couldn’t see that it was going to be a viable industry to be in moving forward, even back then. Horses were dwindling. Properties were diminishing in Salt Lake County, Davis and Utah counties. ... The whole Wasatch Front, horses were going away.”
It’s been a natural evolution as Utah has continued to grow at a fast clip. Agricultural land — especially along the Wasatch Front — has become increasingly rare over the past 20 years, he said, especially after the 2002 Olympics put Utah on the global map.
“People discovered Utah,” Lucky said. “As our population grew, we needed land. So people would go in and buy horse properties. ... A developer would put in a neighborhood, and it just started going on and on, all over the valley and all over the Wasatch Front. That’s pretty much what happened.”
The financial pressures come from all directions, he said, noting city officials see dollar signs in tax revenue when agricultural lots are developed with bigger homes or subdivided. “When you look at it that way, cities are willing to forego the horse property to bring in more revenue.”
Inevitably, that leads to zoning changes, higher density development and so forth.
“What ended up happening is all of the properties got gobbled up,” he said. “And homes started going in. Not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just the way that things evolved.”
Plus, not everyone wants to live the agricultural life, he said. The average homebuyer doesn’t care to have a whole acre — or even a half-acre — to maintain.
“So politically it was a no-brainer for all those involved to allow for the horse industry to dwindle because it couldn’t sustain the type of development and services that everybody wanted,” he said.
Lucky said he’s accepted it’s just the product of a changing world.
“You can’t stop progress,” he said. “Trying to hold on to an old ideology, hell, if we did that we wouldn’t have any of this around us. It’s got to start someplace. I guess it’s got to end someplace, too, but we’re all subject to change.”
As agricultural land becomes increasingly rare along the Wasatch Front, that pushes demand farther out to even the rural parts of Utah. Land farther out is more available, but prices are increasing there, too.
Katerina Bongard, a real estate agent based in the Ogden Valley, said she has clients who hope to preserve their land. But once it’s sold, its future is usually up to the buyer, who could still turn around and develop it anyway. And oftentimes, sellers don’t pass up the highest bid.
“We try to find somebody that won’t develop, but emphasis on ‘try,’” she said. “When you have a cash offer on the table, 10% over asking, most people just go for it. And, you know, I can’t blame them.”
Say there’s a parcel worth $1.5 million. “What can that mean for a seller that has a normal job, that has kids that they have to put through college?” she said.
“A lot of times you can’t blame them, because to them the property is just a property that their parents had. ... A lot of times having the money and being able to actually put it in a lifestyle that you want for you and your kids and your family means way more.”
Why does it matter if farm life is disappearing?
As Kris Getzie hiked down the hillside overlooking her 80-acre ranch in Oakley, a rural community located in the hills of Summit County, dozens of ears perked up.
Her herd of about 10 broodmares — some of them pregnant — looked up at her. When Getzie approached, they jostled each other for her attention.
Their sizes, breeds and coat patterns ran the spectrum. There was Belle, the huge black splash Clydesdale. Annie, a big chestnut Belgian. Peanut, a stout bay pony with a thick black mane. Merada, a bay quarter horse. And several more.
Getzie made her way through the herd, stopping to give two mares some pregnancy shots. She also gave some medicine to Fancy, a roan that had a goopy eye. She put a fly mask over Fancy’s face to help it heal. Ginger, a chestnut, was among the more affectionate of the bunch. When Getzie scratched her neck, Ginger relished it, stretching her head high and squinting her eyes when Getzie hit the sweet spot.
Getzie hasn’t always had 8D Ranch, where she and her partner run a cutting horse breeding business and a nonprofit REINS, which is devoted to “providing a healing space for emotional recovery” for both humans and horses.
Before they became full-time ranchers, Getzie said she and her husband lived in Park City and had careers as company executives. Then they decided to execute their “dream” of owning a ranch. After a lot of hard work to align their finances, “methodical” business planning and five long years of searching for the perfect property, Getzie said they bought the 80-acre ranch in 2019 — before the housing market reached today’s boiling point.
“Now looking at the landscape, it’s a tough market,” Getize said, expressing how grateful she is to have bought when they did. If it was difficult to find a similar parcel three years ago, it’s even more so now. “I don’t envy that situation right now.”
And Getzie’s neighbors are also grateful she and her husband bought the land, which could have been developed. It’s zoned to allow up to one house per 5 acres. Getzie said when they first bought the land, their neighbors held their breath, waiting to see what would happen with the property.
“Once they saw the work that we were doing, they said, ‘We’re so grateful you’re keeping it an actual ranch,’” Getzie said. “So it’s definitely appreciated by all of our neighbors.”
Now, Getzie said her goal is to preserve the ranch and its “legacy” into perpetuity, hoping one day their children will take over down the line. But that’s easier said than done, she said, noting that not everyone wants this lifestyle. “It’s a lot of work,” she said.
“If you want the legacy to live on, you have to be part of the solution for your kids. You can’t just dump it on them.”
Getzie’s rescue herd — which aid in group therapy sessions for women and girls — includes a snow white donkey named Banana that was pulled from a kill pen in Texas, an introverted grey quarter horse named Eeyore, and a sensitive mule named Gizmo who has trust issues stemming from a traumatic past of his own.
There’s something innate within the human soul — a desire to connect with nature and animals. And there’s something particularly special about horses — their emotional intelligence, their ability to act as a mirror to help people better understand their inner struggles by forcing them to think more about how those issues influence their outward behavior.
At REINS, Getzie said people learn how healing that connection to animals and the agricultural way of life can be.
“Through our nonprofit, we’re giving people who have no experience with horses and this lifestyle an opportunity to see what it is,” she said. “Not only is there a personal healing ... but we’re kind of opening up the eyes of people, who realize, ‘Oh, this is a whole lifestyle.’”
But as agricultural land becomes increasingly expensive, that way of life is becoming more and more unreachable to the average person. When she thinks about what’s happening to the West, Getzie said it’s a “depressing” thought, but it also makes her more “determined” to preserve the Western lifestyle and share it with others.
“It’s a labor of love,” she said. “People don’t realize the amount of love and passion people have for what they do.”