STAR, Idaho — Mike Moyle stood in his freshly cut mint field, the sweet fragrance perfuming a vista that abruptly shifts at the edge of the field, where cropland gives way to a construction zone full of new houses sprouting from the ground.
“All these houses — as fast as they can get the lots done, they’re sold,” said Moyle, a farmer in Star and the majority leader of the Idaho House of Representatives. “I like to say we are farming between the houses, because we literally do.”
Fields are being converted into lushly landscaped new subdivisions at an astounding rate in Star, making the small western Ada County city the No. 1 fastest-growing city in the state from 1990 to 2018. During that time period, the population swelled 1,434% — higher than Meridian’s 1,013% or Boise’s 82%, according to U.S. Census figures.
That makes Star ground zero for growth in Idaho’s fast-growing Treasure Valley, and longtime residents and newcomers alike are struggling with the challenges of growth, even as they’re reaping its rewards. Star’s current population is around 11,000; by 2040, it’s projected to hit 30,000.
Moyle, who grew up in Star, remembers riding his horse from his family farm to the river as a 5-year-old.
“I would love for it to be like it used to be, but those days are gone,” he said. “You can’t deny them the ability to do what they’re doing.”
Two big challenges loom especially large for Star: Traffic, in a rural town served largely by country highways; and a lack of businesses even as new residential rooftops bloom across the landscape.
Star has massive numbers of new homes, but hardly any businesses. Its tax base is currently 93% residential, and just 7% business. City leaders’ goal is a 70-30 split.
“We’re the ultimate bedroom community,” said Mayor Chad Bell, who’s nearing the end of his four-year term — and facing a challenge from City Council President Trevor Chadwick in his re-election bid. “We don’t want to stay that way.”
Said Chadwick, “That’s a huge problem. We’re upside down when you look at our tax base. … But in order to get business to come in, you’ve got to have the rooftops first to draw it.”
Bell said, “We would love to see some business that would … provide services and goods and products to our community, and help relieve that.” If people could work and shop in town instead of having to drive everywhere, it’d also relieve the pressure on the highways, he noted. “We have to get in a car every time we want to go somewhere to a restaurant to eat.”
City Councilman David Hershey has lived in Colorado, Utah, Washington, D.C., and California; he works at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise.
“Some people say it’s a long way to commute,” he said. “A lot of these people coming from California, or from the Oregon Coast or Seattle, a 20-mile commute is nothing. I used to commute 42 miles once. It was horrible.”
Star’s lack of businesses and its rudimentary transportation system “makes us a community where you see all the traffic go one way in the morning, and one way in the afternoon,” he said.
HISTORY & GROWTH
Transportation has always played a key role in Star’s fate. One of the earliest settlements in the Boise Valley, the city for decades had a population of around 500, which, in 1907, made it the second-largest community in the state after Boise. It was a bustling village with stores, hotels, livery stables and more, served by the Interurban Railway from Boise, according to city history compiled on the city’s website from the accounts of local residents.
When the state paved the highway to Star in 1929, farmers there balked at having to pay higher taxes to pave it through town, and instead turned in the city charter and de-incorporated, leaving that task to the state. Star re-incorporated in 1997 — when it still had around 500 people.
Despite its ballooning population, Star today has no large grocery store, with the Star Mercantile & Lumber the only choice in town.
Megan Larsen, whose grandfather bought the business in 1908, said, “It’s been in our family 100-some years.”
The Merc is a combination grocery store, state contract liquor store, hardware store, lumber outlet, and everything-else store.
“We’re just a little, ‘If we don’t have it, you don’t need it,’ type of store,” Larsen, 32, said with a smile.
Two grocery chains have purchased ground in Star, Albertsons on the main drag — also known as State Highway 44 or State Street, just west of downtown — and Ridley’s, not far off in a commercial plot in front of Heron River subdivision.
Larsen’s not worried.
“We figure better an Albertsons than a Walmart,” she said. “We’ll take that.”
“We all know it’s a great place to live,” she said, “and it seems like other people are starting to figure that out as well.”
Milt and Maxine Klein have lived in the Star area for 43 years, and four years ago, they sold their acreage north of downtown and moved into a tidy home in a new subdivision.
“We love it here,” Maxine Klein said. The couple enjoys the view of a pond from their back deck, where they see geese and egrets, and osprey have built a nest.
Said Milt Klein, “We have everything we had up there, only we don’t have to take care of it.”
“The only thing I can really complain about is there is not the infrastructure to keep up with the traffic,” he said. The neighborhood was promised a stoplight out on the highway in August, he said. “There ain’t one there.”
When traffic is heavy, that makes it near-impossible to turn left out of the subdivision onto State Street.
"There could’ve been a bypass through years ago,” he said. “There’s not a good place for one now.”
Craig Groves, owner and president of Park Pointe Development, is building 550 homes in Star. The project he started in early 2005 is in the 12th phase of a 15-phase planned community. It’s got a mile-and-a-half of Boise River frontage, nine lakes, miles of walking trails, tennis courts and more; prices range from $300,000 to nearly $1 million, with an average just under $600,000. He’s also planning to move there.
“I love that little town,” he said.
Groves has developed more than 30 communities in various partnerships and on his own, including more than 6,000 houses in Boise, Meridian, Nampa, Kuna and Star.
“Star’s got some transportation limitations. It’s got some commercial growth limitations,” Groves said. But, he said, “As a community developer, I really appreciate the city’s forward thinking toward the quality of the housing stock that they want to attract into the community.”
Groves said he believes it’s the best in the region.
Bruce Davis is a relative newcomer to Star, having bought his new home there four years ago and moved in just over two years ago from Orange County, California. He and his wife, both retirees, were able to purchase their home, complete with a big RV garage for their 37-foot motor home, in addition to purchasing rental property, “out of just the sale of the house.”
Davis, 69, also brought along his 32-year-old son, who he said “moved to escape Orange County.” When the couple travels, their son “keeps an eye on things.”
Davis, who has friends who retired in Boise, was attracted to Star for the construction quality.
“That’s what my wife did for a living, is evaluate building quality in Newport Beach, places like that where people don’t think anything of dropping $8 million or $10 million on a house,” he said.
He’s a retired police investigator and security executive; she just retired as an appraiser for the County of Orange.
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TYPES OF GROWTH
Groves said the communities he plans are for people of varying stages in life, but there aren’t many starter homes being built in Star. And he sees lots of retirees.
“There are a lot of people retiring to Idaho with lots and lots of money,” he said.
“We get a lot of retirees because they’re selling their house for $1.2 million that they bought for $800,000 back in the day, and now they’ve got this insane equity in it,” he said. “Half of it will get you anything you want. So you buy a house, cash on the barrel, and still have a good chunk in the bank. You’re doing good. I would do the same thing.”
He said he hopes the city can plan for growth in a manner that will allow for “people of all levels of life, all stages, to have a place that they can call home and be proud.”
Managing and planning for growth has been the city’s highest priority in recent years; it’s updated its comprehensive plan and its development ordinances, and is working on an updated transportation plan and central business district plan.
It hasn't all gone smoothly. Two years ago, an unsuccessful recall attempt targeted Bell and Councilman Kevin Nielsen, after Bell cast the tie-breaking vote to approve a proposed big apartment complex called Crystal Springs at the corner of State Street and Highway 16. Though it was approved, it hasn't been built.
Says Bell, "A group of people were up in arms about growth in general." Some still are, he said.
Star’s future central business district will be largely along the highway, plus some major cross streets, and extending back a block, Bell said, including some areas that now are occupied by older homes.
“We’re not going to force them out,” Bell said. But the city’s making sure the zoning’s right, so that when those properties sell, they can sell as commercial sites. There’s been huge interest, he said.
Along the main highway through town, he said, “If it doesn’t have a for-sale sign on it, it means somebody just bought it.”
The city has limited tools, under state law, to plan for its growth, Hershey said.
“There’s a lot of things you can’t do,” he said. “I’ve been told by our attorneys.”
Among the things the city can do is require a certain percentage of open space in new developments, which it has recently increased; plan for parks, including its big, popular sports park and a riverfront park that’s in the works; and protect existing farming operations by writing right-to-farm protections into the conditions of approval for all new developments.
“Every now and again,” Bell said, the city gets a complaint about sounds, smells or flies from farming operations next to a neighborhood. “We tell them, well, you bought a house right next to farmland.”
Newcomers love seeing the tall rows of corn, the cows and the horses, he said. But, “When the farmer’s out there at midnight combining hay because that’s when you do it for the moisture, they don’t like it.”
Bell said, “Everybody wonders why we are growing so fast. The whole valley is growing fast, we’re no exception. Except Star is a really, really nice place to live. There’s still that small-town feel,” and the sense of living in a rural area. “Hopefully we’ll be able to maintain some of that as this continues.”
Chadwick, who's president of the West Valley Little League, said he sees 150 to 160 new kids a year.
“These people are moving here for a reason: Because they like our area,” he said. “It’s going to grow. People don’t want it to grow — I get it, I understand it. They don’t want to see farmland go away.” But, he said, “How can you blame them for wanting to sell their property? How can you blame them for wanting to take advantage of the opportunity that they have after working their butts off for all those years?”
Davis, who moved from Orange County to retire, said, “Unfortunately, southern California has become such an intolerable area.” The home he bought 35 years ago in Garden Grove was in a single-family neighborhood, and neighbors all around him were raising kids, too. When he sold the house, there were just two single-family homes left on the block; all the others had been converted into multifamily residences.
“It had gotten too compacted,” he said. He hopes Star won’t suffer the same fate.
“It’s growing too fast,” he said. “I’d like it to be less densely populated here, and spread it out.”
Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.
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