Value in the land
Developers seek a profit in orchard and vineyard land.
Just north of Oroville, Washington, on the shores of Lake Osoyoos, plans for the first phase of the 110-unit Veranda Beach resort development are steaming ahead.
The final 30 units sold within days of hitting the market in mid-August, snapped up largely by buyers over the border in Canada unfazed by the slowdown hitting U.S. housing markets.
An acre of lakefront property that struggled to command $125,000 five years ago now sells for $600,000, said Rocky DeVon, owner of the Re/Max Lake and Country brokerage in Oroville. With the exchange rate between the countries' dollars continuing to narrow, Canadians are finding Okanogan County properties cheaper than ever before.
"They simply cannot create enough inventory on the Canadian side to fulfill the demand, and with the U.S. dollar and Canadian dollar almost at par, our property is still substantially cheaper than theirs," DeVon said. "If you were to take that same $600,000 lot five miles north of us, you would be talking $1 million for it, and if you took it up to Kelowna, you'd be talking $1.5 million."
The phenomenon is good news for Okanogan County orchardists, many of whom were hit hard by the travails of the apple industry in the late 1990s and early part of this decade. A single packing house remains in Oroville.
Up to a half-dozen developers—some from Canada—are reportedly scouting local properties for resort projects. Ironically, some of those developments will more than likely have an agricultural element.
Legend Resorts, Ltd., of Kelowna, British Columbia, which is developing Veranda Beach, plans to include an on-site winery in the second phase of the project.
The pattern is well established a few miles north in Canada's Okanagan Valley, where developments from Osoyoos to Vernon are pitching buyers on the appeal of living amid the vineyards that have been steadily replacing orchards as British Columbia's wine industry has matured. Wine tourism is now worth approximately $71.5 million annually, and developers are capitalizing on the appeal of a vinous lifestyle with high-end developments to match.
"It's the next evolutionary step for our industry. We've been successful because we are value-added," said Gordon Fitzpatrick, president of CedarCreek Estate Winery in Kelowna. "Wineries are now getting into the hospitality end of things as well, and all of that—with the agritourism and all of the other things that come with it—is just going to help sustain agriculture, which is the base of what we do. This enables us to keep moving up the value chain."
The Fitzpatrick family, for its part, is working with Concord Pacific Group of Vancouver, B.C., on the development of Greata Ranch Vineyard Estates, located a 20-minute drive north of Penticton on 112 acres of former orchard land overlooking Okanagan Lake.
Greata Ranch will feature 400 homes on 40 acres of the site, as well as a boutique winery (wines under the Greata Ranch label are already available), shops, marina, and other amenities. The project includes 40 acres of vineyard, part of an effort to balance residential development with the region's traditional agricultural activities.
"Our goal, what we're working towards, is to make sure we have this harmonious coexistence between the agriculture and the development," Fitzpatrick said. "When you see a lot of the promotional materials for developments that are happening here in the Okanagan now, they typically will have a shot of a vineyard, they'll have a shot of the lake, and then there'll probably be some lifestyle shots. The wonderful thing about Greata is, those just aren't images you have to strain your neck to see or go visit—they're right out your front and back door."
There was also a sound business case for the combination of agriculture and residential uses, which mirrors what the Fitzpatricks did with a 36-acre orchard property they acquired in Osoyoos. The property consisted of four blocks planted to apples and various stone fruits, but it was losing money. The owners, aware of a strengthening property market, wanted to sell.
CedarCreek struck a deal that allowed the owners to keep a one-acre homestead site (which was excluded from the province's Agricultural Land Reserve, removing limits on development options), and planted vines on the remainder.
What is the best use of the land?" Fitzpatrick asks. "This land that we bought in Osoyoos is great agricultural land, so if you can find a value-added crop, which, fortunately, grapes are, then that's what you should do. There's portions of Greata that aren't suitable for growing grapes, so if we're able to take that and utilize it and turn it into another aspect of the business, then that's going to sustain agriculture all the more."
There may not be a lot of agriculture left to sustain around Oroville, but DeVon believes resort development is at least giving orchardists a retirement option and may even revive the Oroville area.
"Orchardists are just seeing an escape route," DeVon said. "Some of them are 65, 70 years old, and they've basically, up until the last few years, had no way out of owning the property other than either letting it go back to the bank or farming until they died. We're actually able to put them in a position where, in the last few years of their life, they actually have some money in their pocket and can enjoy life for a little bit."
While Veranda Beach is the only project that's received approval from Okanogan County to date, DeVon's brokerage has a former orchard property listed that could be one of the next sites up for development—a 15-acre tract with 430 feet of lake frontage able to accommodate up to 350 residential units.
DeVon isn't without mixed feelings about the transition that's taking place, however. His family homesteaded in the Oroville area in 1889 and was orcharding until 2000, when DeVon left the apple business.
While DeVon mourns the loss of the area's orchards, he shares Fitzpatrick's pleasure in seeing the land put to good use even if that means residential and resort --development.
"It's better than it being lost to the bank and then just turned into a giant weed patch," he said.