Merid­ian los­ing the race to make area farm­land into ag-tech cen­ter

The Idaho Statesman (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - BY KATE TALERICO kta­[email protected]­hostates­man.com MERID­IAN

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.”

Merid­ian spent

$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.

KATE TALERICO kta­[email protected]­hostates­man.com

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.

KATE TALERICO kta­[email protected]­hostates­man.com

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.

KATHER­INE JONES [email protected]­hostates­man.com

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.

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