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The rural-urban divide: As cities expand, rural residents feel the squeeze of population growth

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TWIN FALLS — Magic Valley residents have a complicated relationship with agriculture.

We love seeing horses frolicking in a pasture, but we hate listening to farmers bale hay at night. We love food, but we hate the noise and dust that harvest creates. We love the taste of cheese, ice cream and yogurt, but we hate the smell of dairies.

We love the wealth that agriculture has given us, but we hate the nuisances that come with agriculture.

For the past few years, Twin Falls County has played catch-up trying to keep pace with its rapid growth. But in the not-so-distant future, zoning issues between rural and urban areas are likely to come to a head. The impending collision of incompatible land uses, commissioners say, is a recipe for conflict.

The collision

“Not in my backyard,” some disgruntled residents say. But just whose backyard is it anyway?

Jill and Tom Skeem own a home on one acre on Champlin Road west of Kimberly. A little more than a mile west of the Skeems’ home sits Amalgamated Sugar Co.’s century-old processing plant. Just north of the sugar factory sits Jayco Inc., a manufacturer of recreational camp trailers, and a half-mile south of the Skeems’ home sits a dairy.

For years, the Skeems fully expected to retire and live happily ever after in their home, directly surrounded by farm ground. But nearly six years ago, Chobani purchased land a mile north of the couple’s home, followed soon by Clif Bar. Now Twin Falls city limits are within a half-mile of their home.

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Jill Skeem city growth

Jill Skeem discusses zoning clashes July 27 from the deck of her home west of Kimberly. The road in front of her house — 3300 East — where she lives with her husband, Tom Skeem, is the dividing line between the Kimberly Area of Impact and the Twin Falls Area of Impact.

The Skeems and their country neighbors are feeling the pinch.

Kimberly recently approved two subdivisions in the city’s impact area east of Champlin Road, also known as 3300 East, just up the road from the Skeems. Phase I of Evening Star Subdivision includes 10 homes on 10 acres and Sugar Slope Subdivision includes four homes on five acres.

Impact areas are not inside a city’s legal bounds but are areas a city expects to annex in the future.

In May, local potato growers proposed to construct two spud cellars on 38 acres in the agriculture zone west of Champlin Road. Complicating the issue, the proposed site of the spud cellars is in Twin Falls’ impact area, but because the site is in an ag zone and is more than 20 acres, Twin Falls County has zoning jurisdiction.

The Skeems and their neighbors sprang into action to oppose the spud cellars. The cellars are part of a commercial operation and shouldn’t be allowed in an agriculture zone, they protested.

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Jill Skeem city growth

Twin Falls County Commissioners will allow two potato cellars on this 38-acre parcel on 3300 East, south of Chobani and Clif Bar, seen July 27. Commissioners reversed the county Planning and Zoning board's earlier decision denying a conditional use permit requested by Eagle Eye Properties, a cooperative of potato growers.

The applicant, Eagle Eye Properties, represents a cooperative of five local growers whose potatoes are packed and shipped by Eagle Eye Produce.

Eagle Eye Properties’ application for a conditional use permit was rejected by the county Planning and Zoning Commission in May, but not because of the neighbors’ argument. The Idaho Falls-based business has appealed the decision, and it will go before the county commission on Aug. 30.

Finding a balance

Because the company is appealing the P&Z’s decision, Administrator Bill Crafton couldn’t comment on the case but agreed to discuss the county’s growing pains. The county will probably see more land use conflicts as urbanization continues, he said.

Idaho’s Right to Farm Act protects farmland from urbanization, Crafton said, but it also empowers counties to enact restrictive codes to protect everyone’s property rights.

“There are no carte blanche zoning ordinances,” he said.

To mitigate conflicts over private property, the state requires counties and cities to have up-to-date comprehensive plans and impact area agreements to guide a town’s growth in a structured, logical manner and to stave off urban sprawl.

“You can’t control growth, but you can guide it into a better form,” said Jonathan Spendlove, Twin Falls Planning and Zoning director.

The comprehensive plans and impact area agreements are to be updated every 10 years, but 10 years may not be often enough, Twin Falls County Commissioner Don Hall said. Residential and commercial development may outpace local government’s ability to guide it.

“Ten years ago, no one saw Chobani coming,” said Hall, a former Twin Falls mayor and city councilman.

Spendlove emphasized the relationship between a city’s comprehensive plan and its zoning codes.

“Comp plan is the vision, and the zoning codes are the blueprints,” he said.

The rural-urban divide: Nearby growth trickles into small Mini-Cassia towns

Twin Falls County’s current plan was completed in 2008. Commissioners have taken the first step to update it by soliciting consultants to do the job. And they aren’t alone. Kimberly is gearing up to update its plan in the next two years.

“The adopted area of impact is to be renegotiated (with the county) in approximately two years,” Kimberly Planning and Zoning Administrator Craig Eckles wrote in an email. “At such time the City of Kimberly, Twin Falls, Twin Falls County and staff shall be meeting on this issue to determine any boundary changes.”

When founded, Twin Falls and Kimberly sat six miles apart. Today, only one mile separates the eastern city limits of Twin Falls and the western city limits of Kimberly. The cities’ areas of impact touch for 3 1/2 miles along 3300 East and 3800 North.

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2012 Twin Falls and Kimberly areas of impact

This zoning map outlines the city limits of Hansen, Kimberly, Twin Falls and Filer inside the town's areas of impact. Areas outside the impact areas shown in a darker beige are zoned rural residential by Twin Falls County.

Twin Falls now consumes some 50 square miles, including its impact area. Kimberly controls 7 1/2 square miles. The city limits of Twin Falls now extend east to include most of the mile section containing Chobani, Jayco and Clif Bar. Kimberly now extends west to include a subdivision at 3400 East and Orchard Drive.

Will Twin Falls grow to the east and west to eventually surround nearby towns like Boise surrounded Garden City in Ada County?

“We don’t see that coming because we don’t have the (natural) resources,” Crafton said. There is not enough water or farm ground in the county to support that much population.

“If we break the cow’s back, she won’t give any milk,” he said. “If we break agriculture’s back, we won’t have to worry about zoning. There will be no Chobani. No Glanbia. No Clif Bar.”

‘We’ve got some hard questions to ask’

Agriculture, land use and property rights are only a part of what will be considered in counties’ comprehensive plans. The state requires each entity to consider 17 components — including public services and utilities, transportation and economic development — in their plans.

Updating Twin Falls County’s comprehensive plan will be a time-consuming process, involving tremendous amounts of community input, Hall said.

“It’s going to take a lot of communication — we’ve got some hard questions to ask.”

We have enough farmland to keep our food-processing facilities working at capacity. But as more people move here, housing will eat up more and more open land, and residents will consume more irrigation water.

Both Hall and Spendlove say builders should focus on developing subdivisions and multi-family housing units in cities and impact areas to ensure residential growth doesn’t consume farmland.

Both question the “estate subdivisions” built on prime farmland in the country. They say we should be building on marginal land – land that is rocky or hard to farm.

“We need more people in the city and fewer in the county,” Spendlove said.

Needs vs. desires

Water is essential to sustaining life in the Magic Valley, and serious consequences are brought down on those who don’t play by the rules. Idaho Department of Water Resources recently issued curtailment orders on 38 groundwater users for failing to comply with the conditions of an agreement with surface-water users.

Water is a serious subject, Hall said. And much is at stake.

“We have to ask ourselves, ‘Do we want lawns or industry?’”

As growth continues, wastewater will become a more urgent issue between communities. Even today, Twin Falls and Kimberly “share” a wastewater treatment facility.

Kimberly has no sewer plant of its own and the city pays Twin Falls to treat its wastewater. While proponents of a new wastewater treatment plant in Kimberly say gaining independence from Twin Falls is essential to the community’s growth, a 2015 proposal to build a plant overwhelmingly failed at the ballot box.

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Jill Skeem city growth

Tom Skeem enjoys the sun July 27 on the deck of his home west of Kimberly. Skeem and his wife, Jill, are protesting a request for a conditional use permit for two potato cellars nearby.

Officials agree that decisions about the valley’s future should no longer be made in isolation. Neighboring towns and the county need to know what the other is planning.

“Cities drive growth,” Johnson said, “not counties.”

Weighing the possibilities

So how do we protect agriculture — the valley’s economic foundation — while balancing society’s needs? Spendlove has suggested the towns and county form a community planning association to talk about the future.

The key is creating a comprehensive plan that reflects the desires of the community while addressing its current and future needs, community leaders say.

We need clean drinking water. We need water for industry. We need water for recreation.

We need good roads. We need schools. We need clean air.

We also need a vibrant economy with agriculture as its base.

“We need to find a common vision for people and that’s one tough thing to do,” Crafton said. “Common vision takes a long time.”

“If we break the cow’s back, she won’t give any milk.
If we break agriculture’s back, we won’t have to
worry about zoning.
There will be no Chobani.
No Glanbia. No Clif Bar.” Bill Crafton, Twin Falls County Planning and Zoning administrator

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