BOISE, Idaho — This story originally appeared in the Idaho Press.
Brock Cherry sat in his Mountain Home City Hall office, the lights on his desk phone flashing behind him. From his windows, he can see a mural featuring a horse-drawn buggy, then a train, and later an airplane.
Cherry, as community development director, is trying to avoid some of the mistakes other Idaho cities made as the state’s recent growth surge has taken off. Elmore County has grown almost 6% in the past decade and Cherry is expecting more as the Treasure Valley fills up.
“Don’t count us out,” Cherry said. “There’s us, there’s Emmett, there’s Payette, there’s Homedale, all these on the very periphery … we haven’t been relevant. But we are now.”
Owyhee, Elmore and Gem counties have had growth rates between 3% and 12% in the past decade, according to census records.
As transportation improvements come online, counties including Gem and Owyhee will become more accessible, said Matt Stoll, executive director of the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho.
The skyrocketing price of housing can also push people out farther, he said.
“People tend to drive until they qualify,” Stoll said.
Plus, many don’t need to be near job centers, whether they be retirees or those who work remotely.
For surrounding counties in the Treasure Valley, the prospect of growth means many things: It can be an added pressure on development, the potential to change the character of a community, or provide an opportunity to do things right. Three cities in particular, from three nearby counties, are feeling the impacts of local growth and development in their own backyard.
Mountain Home in Elmore County
On the way into Mountain Home, a cluster of new houses stood off the highway. Desert shrubs grew along the train tracks. “Welcome to mtn home” read all-caps block letters on a gas station sign.
Almost 16,000 people can call themselves “Mountain Homies,” and Cherry said the city estimates a 4% growth rate. A healthy rate is less than 2%, he said. Cherry added that the growth is coming in “numbers we haven’t seen since 2008.”
“It’s concerning in that I believe it’s happening much faster than a lot of people thought,” Cherry said. “My hypothesis is that the Treasure Valley has filled out.”
Because of rapid growth in the Treasure Valley, Kuna, Meridian, Nampa and Star are merging closer and closer together, traffic infrastructure is deteriorating and Boise gets more unaffordable every day, Cherry said. Home prices have skyrocketed in Mountain Home, but are still cheaper.
But there are more changes than just the number of people in town.
Mountain Home recently became the mural capital of Idaho, something it had not been particularly known for. The city is recognized more for the air force base with the same name.
Murals of palm trees, mountain scenery and agricultural workers dot the downtown, and give locals and tourists alike something to talk about.
On Tuesday, a young boy stood in front of a mural of local pets. As it started to snow, the boy asked “Where’s June?” referring to the family pet.
“We didn’t have June when that got painted,” a woman with him responded.
As the area grows, Cherry is trying to do something different. His plan involves higher-density residences, commercial and industry, and a lower percentage of single-family homes compared to some cities in the Treasure Valley.
“When we only build single-family subdivisions, over and over and over and over, they don’t pay for themselves,” Cherry said. “Bedroom communities, they fall into a pitfall, where they have these golden handcuffs.”
Essentially, most single-family homes don’t generate enough tax revenue to pay for the services they receive, he said.
In the last year, only about 60% of the new homes approved in Mountain Home were single family and 40% of what he calls “the missing middle housing.”
“Nothing eats up green space, farmland, everything that people associate with a rural town more than that type of development,” Cherry said. “Maybe we grow taller, maybe we grow denser.”
However, one limiting factor may be water availability. Cherry said the city is working on solutions, but the biggest conversation centers on possibly altering how agricultural operations utilize water.
In the meantime, Cherry is working on a way to avoid pushing out locals, even as some Treasure Valley residents may find themselves pushed to his city.
Marsing in Owyhee County
Across a bridge on the Snake River sits the city of Marsing, just past a line of vineyards in Canyon County. Marsing, with a population of over 1,200, is the second largest city in Owyhee County, which grew almost 4% from 2020 to 2021, according to the Census Bureau.
Recently, Marsing’s rural fire district just had to start paying its fire chief, said Owyhee County Community Planning Director Amy Huff. The whole county has seen “considerable growth,” she said.
“Some things that we’ve heard in recent meetings is that as we see an influx of people and influx of development, so much of our services are volunteer fire departments or volunteer EMTs,” Huff said. “And fewer and fewer people step up to fill those roles but more and more people are using those services.”
For the small but growing community, this poses a problem.
“We just see that kind of changing, and when you get to that point before you can really afford to pay an employee, it’s almost at a breaking point,” Huff said, though she added the issue was not unique to the county. “Where do you get money? Do you raise taxes?”
More growth could be coming after construction improvements including widening State Highway 55 from the Karcher Interchange towards Marsing are complete.
For Owyhee County, the goal is to avoid one of the biggest issues that has confronted other Treasure Valley communities: Farmland preservation. Developers often target agricultural land, buy cheap and build subdivisions, Huff said.
“They had really amazing prime farmland that has forever been taken out of production,” Huff said. “The agricultural zone is a pivotal part of who we are … we don’t look at that as ground that’s just waiting to become urban or ground-in-waiting for development.”
However, cities in the Treasure Valley once said they wouldn’t expand into certain areas, said Stoll, the planning agency director for Southwest Idaho.
Back in the day, the city of Meridian had no plans of growing past 10,000 people, Stoll said.
Stoll said, in general, cities should look at their comprehensive plans and figure out where development is occurring and how it impacts transportation corridors.
Huff said Owyhee County has been “deliberate and intentional” about making decisions consistent with its comprehensive plan.
“We stick very faithfully to that,” Stoll said. “In that way, while we do have a lot of development pressure, in that way of being true to who we are as a community … it has made it a little bit easier and a little bit more open and transparent and predictable for those looking to locate here.”
There are a few types of people looking to relocate to Owyhee County.
The county is seeing both Treasure Valley residents and out-of-state residents move in. Some out-of-staters are looking for rural settings, but Treasure Valley residents are looking for something a little different, Huff said.
“Those folks are feeling pushed out by the development that the Treasure Valley has seen, they want to locate somewhere a little further out,” Huff said. “(They’re) looking to reclaim a little of the Idaho they once had in the Treasure Valley.”
At the moment, density is not high on the county’s priority list. In unincorporated Owyhee County, there has yet to be a proposed multifamily development. Even if there was, Huff said, a county survey had shown very little support for such a development.
“We have very intentionally planned who we are,” Huff said.
Emmett in Gem County
Workers walked past construction machinery on the outskirts of town Thursday. Rain fell on a lot of newly overturned dirt. Cars coming over the hill into Emmett passed a new subdivision with houses covered in green moisture barriers.
Though Emmett’s footprint is small, it is growing. The city has gained around 1,000 residents in the last seven-to-eight years, Emmett Mayor Gordon Petrie estimated. On a street corner, a home for sale sign stood in the ground across from candidate campaign signs.
“We’ve been planning for this for the last seven years,” Petrie said. “We saw it coming.”
The planning includes building out the infrastructure, from sewer and water refurbishments to installing conduit to make future fiber access easier.
The city is also redirecting resources to its streets, Petrie said.
Right now, developers pay for a lot of growth. They have to put in utilities, streets, water and sewer, Petrie said, plus there are “rather substantial” hook-up fees.
The growth, at this time, is sustainable, he said. Though the Treasure Valley is running out of room, many new residents are from out-of-state, Petrie said.
However, some new residents have pushed back against the growth.
“We’ll have folks that moved here, escaped one of the left coast states…they say ‘Why don’t you stop the growth?” Petrie said. “Apparently they don’t understand the constitution … That’s what’s great about this country.”
Petrie said there’s no concerns about water availability at the moment, and the city hasn’t needed to add a substantial number of police officers.
“We accept the growth because it was predictable,” Petrie said. “It’s a natural evolution of the area as people move.”
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