Meridian losing the race to make area farmland into ag-tech center
In the spring of 2009, Meridian city officials set their sights on 4 square miles of farmland in unincorporated Ada County northwest of the city. They hoped that before developers of single-family subdivisions laid claim to it, they could get there first.
Their vision: a masterplanned corridor for agricultural technology with greenhouses, laboratories, a research center for the University of Idaho, a 200-acre tech campus, and maybe even hobby farms that would attract agritourism. All that would be central to Meridian’s plans to rebrand itself as a center of agricultural heritage in the Treasure Valley.
Over the next decade — despite the lack of private interest, resistance from current landowners and a decline of economic activity amid the Great Recession — Meridian spent thousands of dollars paying consultants to develop a strategy for economic investment and to lure companies such as Simplot and Monsanto. The city dubbed the area the Fields District.
But city officials have failed to beat the slow creep of residential development toward the area, located between Chinden Boulevard to the north and Ustick Road to the south, Canada Road to the west and
Mcdermott Road to the east. In October, the City Council went along with the West Ada School District’s request to put a new high school there.
And with Meridian farmland selling for as much as $150,000 an acre, some landowners are already in talks with residential builders, which threatens an end to the city’s efforts.
After a decade of planning, the area could just become more of what most of Meridian still is: bedrooms for Boise.
“We were trying to race time to see: Could we provide some of the property owners in that area with an alternative to selling to a subdivision developer?” said Bruce Chatterton, Meridian’s community development director from 2012 to 2017.
That’s a serious concern for the city. Mayor Tammy de Weerd has focused her legacy on building Meridian into more than subdivisions whose residents mostly commute east to make their livings. She wants a sustainable community where people can live and work.
Under de Weerd, the city has made progress toward that goal. She oversaw the development of the El Dorado business campus near Eagle and Overland roads. Meridian has brought in an Idaho State University campus in health sciences and Idaho’s first medical school, the for-profit
Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine. Scentsy built its headquarters off Eagle Road. The Village at Meridian has become the biggest retail development in the Treasure Valley. And after years of similar intensive planning, office jobs are coming to places like Ten Mile Crossing, the project going up north of Interstate 84 along Ten Mile Road that houses companies such as Paylocity and Ameriben.
Still, de Weerd said in an interview, “We really need to focus on getting some job opportunities on the west side of our community . ... We have to bring jobs and services to where we live.”
De Weerd said the city will keep pushing for business and residential development in the northwest part of the city. But the 10-year initiative’s failure, in hindsight, reveals how Meridian’s ambition blinded it to the reality that developers were, for the most part, uninterested.
“Usually a city doesn’t try to go at it alone as we effectively were doing,” Chatterton said. “We were out there like Don Quixote tilting at those agricultural windmills.”
IDEAS THAT WENT NO FURTHER THAN PAPER
Around 2008 and just before the recession, Meridian was in the midst of rapid growth. With the strategic plan for the Ten Mile area just finished, de Weerd asked her economic development director, Phil Stiffler, to look into creating the possibility of another industry-specific district.
Stiffler and his team sought advice. They worked with graduate students from the University of Idaho’s Urban Research Design Center to draft concepts for the area. Stiffler consulted with Jan de Weerd, “not because he’s the mayor’s husband,” but “because of his expertise in the area,” Stiffler said in a November 2008 city council meeting. And he started to meet with businesses that might be interested.
For this, and his other work on economic development that year, the city paid his team $91,800.
The result of Stiffler’s work was a 2009 white paper on the Fields District. “The basic concept is building on the strengths of the area,” Mayor de Weerd said in a recent interview. “Canyon County was known for its seed expertise, Ada is known for tech expertise. That area is where technology and agriculture collide.”
The ideas mostly stayed on paper. The recession drove up local unemployment and brought growth to a halt. Companies downsized, loans became harder to come by and builders stopped construction halfway through new homes. As the recession dragged on, city leaders tabled the project.
But in October 2013, they revived it.
‘TIME WAS NOT ON OUR SIDE’
“A lot can change in five years,” de Weerd said. The market had started to recover. The prerecession growth was starting to flare up again. And that meant developers would be looking to the area soon, too.
“Time was not on our side for that thing to turn into rooftops and suburbs,” Chatterton said. “It was important to take our best shot and see if there was something there.”
$55,000 to hire Austinbased consultant Pegasus Planning and Development for a yearlong look at the Fields District and other ways Meridian’s agricultural roots could be used to catalyze economic development.
In March 2014, six months after de Weerd signed the contract with Pegasus, she renegotiated, asking Pegasus to complete its report by
June 2014 rather than September, and to broaden its scope to an overall strategic plan for Meridian. The city paid Pegasus an additional $74,500, bringing the tally for its consulting work to $130,000.
Bringing in a consultant to develop an economic development strategy is not unusual for cities. What was unusual with the Fields District was the mayor’s single-handed determination.
“This was really an initiative of Mayor Tammy,” Chatterton said. Others jurisdictions and agencies offered some help at first, such as Meridian and Nampa’s chambers of commerce. The city had conversations with companies like Monsanto, Simplot and some small agricultural businesses, but they didn’t pan out, Chatterton said.
In 2016, de Weerd began to assemble key stakeholders on the project. The city launched a “Growing Together” initiative with Nampa that brought together officials in Meridian, Nampa and Ada and Canyon County to consider jobs in agriculture for the area.
“I appreciate the fact that the city of Meridian is very mindful in how best to use the corridor and in how it impacts the city of Nampa,” said Nampa Mayor Debbie Kling, in a phone interview. She attended Growing Together events while president of the Nampa Chamber of Commerce. She said she too sees a need for economic development in the area.
“There are growth pressures, and right now that land is expensive and home builders are looking at it,” de Weerd told the Idaho Press Tribune at the time. “If we don’t put together a comprehensive plan soon, we’re going to lose opportunities.”
But that approach included unincorporated land and required buy-in from county commissioners in Ada and Canyon counties, and neither sustained interest, Chatterton said.
And the city had neglected to build a consensus with one key group: the landowners themselves.
PLANS WITHOUT THE LAND
Landowners like Dora van Beek have watched as development creeps toward their farms.
Inside her home on Star Road in the middle of the Fields District, she adjusts the pump on her husband Evert’s feet. If she doesn’t, they’ll swell, and the 95-year old could risk blood clots.
Nearly 60 years ago, Evert van Beek immigrated to the United States from Holland. He lived first in California, but moved to Idaho to start a life with his new wife, Dora. They bought the dairy farm and built a business together.
Five years ago, that came to an end. The family sold their cows. Lately, developers have been sending them letters asking if they might consider selling their farm. For now, they aren’t budging.
But Evert van Beek knows that his neighbors might feel differently. “Soon, there’ll be houses here too,” he says.
Now the city is reaching out to the couple. Dora pulls out two postcards she received from the city last year notifying her of opportunities to comment on the city’s proposal to change the future land use of the area, which designates what kind of developments could be built. Meridian in 2017 attempted to rezone some of the land around an Intermountain Gas liquified natural gas storage site to prevent residential development nearby.
“We don’t get to go because of our age,” she says. “We feel like we’re forgotten a little bit.”
They’re not the only ones. Kim Payne, who lives on Mcmillan Road, is trying to sell her home. She said she hasn’t heard from city planners about any plans for an agricultural technology corridor. Neither has Howard Schutte, who owns farmland along Can Ada Road.
Chatterton said the project failed to gather enough buy-in from property owners that city officials spoke with.
“There were a few that were dead-set against it,” he said. “It involved a lot of uncertainty.”
For one thing, it’s risky to sell property early for a catalyst project — everyone else wants to follow when their land is more valuable. And many don’t like the idea of Meridian limiting the types of developers they can sell their property to in the future.
That uncertainty hasn’t gone away. “There has to be some way to keep farmland here,” Payne said.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE FIELDS DISTRICT
Preserving Meridian’s agricultural heritage has always been central to the Fields project. But farmland there is shrinking fast.
Between 1997 and
2012, Ada County lost 30 percent of its farmland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Much of that was in what are now Meridian’s city limits. In a 2016 survey, the majority of Ada, Canyon and Owyhee county respondents listed agriculture as the Treasure Valley’s most important economic sector, the Idaho Press reported.
Meridian has invested years into shaping the future of the Fields District, and it’s still not ready to let go. Caleb Hood, head of Meridian’s planning department, said the city is working with another consulting group to help bring nonresidential growth to the area, targeting developments that would bring familywage jobs.
That it has taken this long doesn’t necessarily mean the project has failed, de Weerd said. She points to the Ten Mile Interchange, which the city started to plan as early as 2004. Only now have businesses started moving their offices there.
There’s a race for the land in the Fields District, though. While some landowners say they won’t sell in their lifetimes, for-sale signs cast long shadows over former ranches and farmland nearby. The van Beeks don’t know what will their children will do with their farm when they die, and they don’t like to think about it much.
Now, with the West
Ada School District building the new Owyhee High School the area, residents are seeing their property values rise. The City Council heard the school district’s application in early October but waited for the school district to come back with responses to the council’s concerns about the public access and sewage and water connections, and de Weerd’s worry that the school wouldn’t be safe for pedestrians. The Council approved the project Oct. 23.
Payne is thrilled the City Council gave its approval. Now she can sell her land, not far from the high school, for a steeper price to someone who might want to build homes there.
It remains to be seen how the high school will affect the city’s development strategy.
“I don’t think that the high school locating out there is going to change it,” de Weerd said. “If you go out to Mountain View High School [south of Overland Road and west of Eagle Road], you’ll see two of our largest office complexes,” Gramercy and Silverstone.
The city’s future land use plan, updated in 2017, does mark the area for school use. But de Weerd and some City Council members didn’t realize it would come so soon.
“Our concern was bringing services in an area where we weren’t ready to grow,” de Weerd said.
When growth does meet that area, it’ll be the city’s last large swath of farmland.
Evert van Beek is holding onto that history.
“I like it the way it is,” he said.
Meridian has dubbed the area between Ustick Road and Highway 20 and Mcdermott and Can Ada Roads as the Fields District. For years, the city planned to capitalize on its agricultural history to spur economic development. But new houses are creeping in fast.
The Fields District, located Northwest of Meridian in unincorporated Ada County, has long caught the eye of Meridian as an area prime for economic development.
This pasture is along Star Road in an area of unincorporated Ada County that Meridian has eyed for an ag-tech district for the past decade. The farmland has so far gone untouched by developers, but the land is within Meridian’s area of impact, or the area where the city expects to grow.
Mike Lindley and his father, Randy, operate a dairy farm on Ustick Road just west of Mcdermott Road. They milk 350 Holsteins on leased land, which has been sold to the West Ada School District to be used for a new high school.