The realtor who wouldn't subdivide 

Eco-realtor makes a living by touting alternative land values

Like most real estate offices, there are photos of available properties in the front window of Prudential Ranch and Land Realtors in Hamilton.

One such property shown is a large white, farmhouse outside of St Ignatious. There's a two-car garage and what appear to be miles of land with a stream coursing through the middle of it all.

Next to the photos is the description/sales pitch: "Beauty surrounds... 3,000 sq. ft. home on 128 acres of productive irrigatable soil while the remainder hosts a wonderful riparian area with Mission Creek (and fish) flowing through. A portion of the land is organically certified."

The asking price has a long line of zeros at the end and is approximately 1,027 times what a reporter working for a small alternative newspaper would make in four lifetimes.

Step inside the elegantly designed interior of the office, complete with antique oak furniture, and you know immediately that you're in a place where the well-heeled come to buy and sell a claim to the Last Best Place.

But the description in the window gives an indication (albeit subtle) that a different kind of real estate brokering is practiced within, one where maintaining a valley's rural characteristics, open spaces and agricultural lands is more important than snagging the next big commission.

"My philosophy doesn't line up with other realtors," says Laura Merrill, the agent listed in the window next to above property. "I pick and choose my business carefully. I'm trying to build up a clientele that is environmentally sensitive. I've never taken a property that the seller or buyer intended to subdivide. There are enough existing properties out there. There is enough without chopping up the valley even more."

An agent for the last seven years, Merrill works to keep tracts of land together by contacting adjacent landowners first when a lot comes up for sale. And even though it means less of a commission for her, Merrill will discourage sellers from committing the one of the greatest environmental sin of all: subdividing land. Instead, she makes a financial argument for keeping properties intact; between the high cost of making sanitation and road improvements, and the added commissions that come due when land is broken down, subdividing often isn't worth the trouble.

Merrill admits she is something of an anomaly in the business. She can name only two other conservation-minded real estate agents in the Bitterroot, though she quickly adds she's sure there are more out there. She is hoping to set up a network of eco-realtors throughout the state.

The philosophy of preserving of open spaces and rural settings is all the more remarkable when you stop to consider that Merrill is working in an area experiencing rampant growth: Ravalli County is the fastest growing county in the state. In the first six years of this decade Stevenville's population grew by 61 percent, while Hamilton's grew 48 percent. In the same time span, nearly 13,000 acres of agricultural lands were converted to other uses and almost 600 subdivisions were approved.

"Lots of land management problems are people management," she says. "We're seeing some very high density subdividing in areas that used to be agricultural, and subdivisions that aren't commensurate with the land features. If we don't plan our growth and work together we're going to grow to look like other places in the country."

Merrill backs up her enthusiasm for county-mandated planning by pointing out that three-quarters of Ravalli County's land base is in federal hands, one-fourth is private and a third of that is agricultural.

"That used to be our economy," she says.

Merrill's unorthodox approach to the fine art of wheeling and dealing in properties has been getting some attention as of late. In April, she was one of about 20 speakers invited to a three-day conference held in Santa Fe for environmental journalists from around the country put on by the Institutes of Journalism and Natural Resources. And although she consistently goes against the flow of her fellow real estate agents, she was recently voted as one of the top three agents in the Bitterroot Valley who other real estate agents would like to work with.

Merrill's commitment to maintaining the environmental integrity of the Bitterroot doesn't come without some personal financial cost. Although she says her philosophy hasn't hurt her business, she admits that she could probably make more money if she were willing to compromise her ideals.

"I guess that's not as important to me as leaving open space and the rural characteristics of this valley. Open space is more important than making a commission. I don't want to do anything to this area that will ruin this valley."

Laura Merrill looks over a listing agreement in her office in Hamilton. Photo by Lise Thompson.

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