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Meridian makes plan for a more urban future, but some still cling to its rural past

Susan Karnes lives in a half-acre lot in South Meridian. She said she worries that Meridian is losing its rural character as it allows more density throughout the city. Photo by Kate Talerico/Idaho Statesman

Paula Connelly’s life is messy. On her 10-acre farm south of Victory Road and just east of Ten Mile Road, she raises chickens and roosters, along with steers that she shoots, kills and skins in her backyard each year. When she sprays manure, her field can stink for days.

“It’s not everybody’s way of life,” she said.

But it’s a way of life some residents feel is under threat as Meridian considers a new city plan that envisions more houses, up to three per acre, on what is now farmland.

On Tuesday, the Meridian City Council held its first public hearing on the city’s comprehensive plan, a document will help to shape Meridian’s growth in the coming decades. State law requires Idaho cities to prepare comprehensive plans to curb sprawl and make clear to residents and developers alike what types of construction — houses? apartments? Starbucks? — can go where.

Meridian’s comprehensive plan has not been updated significantly since 2011, when the city’s population was 76,510. Now — eight years later and with a population of 114,680 — the city is updating its comprehensive plan to reflect Meridian’s rapid urbanization.

But that doesn’t sit right with many Meridian residents, who are clinging to the city’s small-town roots.

Kenzie Ward, who grew up on a dairy in Ada County outside of Meridian, told the City Council that she dreamed of raising her children as she was raised. “We’ve done all the hard labor by ourselves,” she said. “Very few people have this opportunity to grow up with this rural lifestyle.”

One of the biggest changes to the plan is the elimination of Meridian’s rural zoning designation, which ensures lot sizes larger than five acres. The city would rezone many of those rural areas to allow up to 3 units per acre.

That’s too dense, critics argue.

But city planners say the rural designation isn’t enough to protect farmland from development.

Forty acres of farmland could still be turned into houses — just eight 5-acre lots, instead of perhaps 120 one-third acre ones. Taxes from the denser development can better pay for police, fire and other services. The denser development can support sewer lines; the 5-acre lots cannot.

Many farmers seize the chance to sell their land when it becomes valuable for development. For some, the sale may fund their retirements.

“Some of those folks, over time, are going to want to develop that property,” said City Planner Caleb Hood at the public hearing. “You can color the zoning map however you want, but it’s not going to preserve it.”

A LAND WAR BETWEEN MERIDIAN AND KUNA

Kuna, too, has begun to eat away at some of the land Meridian had tried to keep rural.

The rural zoning in Meridian’s south “has not served the city well thus far,” Hood said. “It has pushed those that want to develop to another city.”

Hood said many farmland owners have chosen to annex into Kuna rather than Meridian because Kuna offers the ability to develop at higher densities, making the land more valuable.

photo of downtown kuna

Kuna recently revitalized its downtown streets by adding bulb-outs and trees. What Meridian wants to preserve as agricultural, real estate developers see as prime land for development in Kuna. Photo by Sharon Fisher.

County landowners, sooner or later, may seek to annex into an incorporated city. Incorporating can offer benefits to a developer, such as access to sewer and water and faster and fire police response times, along with the ability to build at higher densities.

To be considered for annexation, land must be within a city’s comprehensive planning area, which a city defines as its projected area for future growth. The land must also be connected to another parcel already annexed in the city. This is to prevent islands of incorporated city land from forming. It’s also why many developers talk about needing a “path to annexation” to form before they can annex into a city.

Kuna and Meridian share a border. Their comprehensive plan areas also overlap between Amity and Lake Hazel Road, leading them to compete over land. As these two communities grow and get closer to one another, landowners in between have the choice to annex into either city, as long as they share a border with land that has already been annexed.

What Meridian wants to preserve as agricultural, real estate developers see as prime land for development in Kuna.

The area between Amity and Victory along Ten Mile is a good example of Hood’s point. It is just a few minutes away from Interstate 84, offering quick access for suburban commuters.

Real estate investors like Tim Eck have sought to annex those properties into Kuna, which recently built a wastewater treatment plant near the southwest corner of Ten Mile and Lake Hazel roads, close to Kuna’s border with Meridian. The plant can serve Eck’s proposed homes, while Meridian cannot, unless denser development is allowed under Meridian’s comprehensive plan.

“It comes down to: Who wants your poop the most?” Eck joked.

In addition, it’s easier to annex in Kuna in that area because so much of the land is already incorporated, Eck said. Many of the landowners between Black Cat and Linder roads and between East Lake Hazel and Victory roads have opted to remain a part of the county, creating a “great wall” that has blocked others in that area from annexing into Meridian, he added.

“It’s the accessibility to an annexation corridor, it’s the accessibility to services,” he said.

THE EXPENSE OF DEVELOPING AT LOWER DENSITIES

Developers also make more money building at higher densities.

“There’s just not a huge market for one to five-acre parcels,” Hood said.

“Something has to give,” he added. “You have to pay more for the service, or you can cut back on the level of service,” or you can have more people paying for the service.

Meridian faces the same problem as Eagle, which is considering removing its own low-density area — the Foothills — from its comprehensive plan in light of planners’ worries that development won’t cover the cost of city services.

“We’re planning for a city,” Eagle planner Nichoel Baird Spencer told residents at a meeting Monday. Hood said the same thing to Meridian’s residents at Tuesday’s comprehensive plan meeting.

Click to enlarge. Image courtesy of Kate Talerico/Idaho Statesman

HOW TO PRESERVE MERIDIAN’S RURAL HERITAGE?

Residents like Connelly and Ward want the city to create a land-use designation for one-acre lots. The city argues that one-acre lots could be developed in the low-density areas that would allow up to three houses per acre, but residents want more protection from the higher densities on that range.

Susan Karnes, who moved to South Meridian from Eagle three years ago, helped form a neighborhood group that has advocated to preserve lower densities in her area. She has been a strong advocate on the steering committee against removing the rural zoning designation.

“It may be eventually that we will be an urban community — but we think it’s premature, especially when the stakeholders so strongly value our existing agricultural and semi-rural properties,” she told the council.

Ward, the former dairy farmer, also wants the council to force developers to preserve more than the currently required 10% of land in new developments as open space.

Hood agrees with Ward about the 10% requirement. He also said the city is considering doing what Boise has done to save land in its Foothillls: Ask voters to pass a property tax levy to buy farmland for preservation.

“Unless people are compensated, we don’t have a way to preserve agricultural land,” Hood said.

DEFERRING A DECISION ON THE COMPREHENSIVE PLAN?

Updating the comprehensive plan required 18 months of public involvement from residents, developers and city planners.

Karnes asked the council to consider deferring a decision on it to the new mayor, Robert Simison, and new City Council members who will step up in January.

“Is it fair to our newly elected officials to be responsible for a guide in which they had no voice?” she asked the council. “Is it fair to the public who elected them to represent their interests through a democratic mandate?”

City Council Vice President Luke Cavener, who will remain on the council come January, agreed.

“When we began this process 18 months ago, we didn’t know that we would have a brand new mayor and council,” he said. “I think there is a benefit to having the new mayor and the new council weigh in on it.”

Councilman Treg Bernt, who will also remain on the council, said he’d rather “nail this out sooner rather than later.”

The council will continue to hear testimony at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 26 at City Hall, 33 E. Broadway Ave.

About Kate Talerico Idaho Statesman