New legislation wants to put big developers in the driver’s seat

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A recent bill introduced in the Idaho Legislature, HB 643, will excuse big developers from adhering to local development regulations. If this bill passes, big developers like the Wilkes Brothers will decide how and where Idaho communities grow – not the actual people who live there. 

Idaho is the fastest growing state in the nation, and we all feel the impacts of growth; sitting in traffic, sending our kids to crowded schools, paying more for housing, and having to drive farther distances to escape city life. 

There’s no way to stop growth, but we can ensure Idaho communities grow in a thoughtful way that balances development with open space and farmland. One of the tools counties use to achieve balanced growth is the subdivision process for how homes are built on what was once farmland.

Last week, HB643 was introduced in the House, which would undermine this essential tool. This legislation would change county subdivision processes, paving the way for more rampant, unchecked development of our farmland. This bill undermines local control by removing decision-making power from the county to developers. Counties – not big developers – should be in the driver’s seat when it comes to decisions on where and how communities grow. 

To manage our state’s continued growth properly, our infrastructure, utilities, services (such as roads or schools), and – most importantly – local residents must be taken into consideration when we develop land. Skipping over measures of due diligence and county oversight will deal a critical blow to communities’ abilities to manage growth in a way that protects our infrastructure, people and natural environment for ourselves and future generations.

Infrastructure 

HB 643 encourages yet more pockets of growth in rural areas and exempts big developers from the county subdivision process. While they are tailored to the needs of each county, subdivision processes are routine, essentially universal requirements when large swaths of open land are going to be built on. The subdivision process grants local governments the ability to assess the impact of new growth on the environment as well as public facilities or services, while providing an opportunity for the community to comment. 

New development brings private benefit to the developer but comes with a public price tag for more schools, roads, pipes, and first responders, with the brunt of the cost falling to current residents. For example, Eagle residents will have to pay for new infrastructure supporting the sprawling community of far flung Avimor, from roads to emergency buildings to more first responders. Essentially, Eagle would have to underwrite Avimor’s costs for 20-30 years. Subdivision processes help ensure that development is appropriately planned for and funded fairly. HB 643 would remove this procedural safeguard and prioritize developers’ profit while ignoring the environmental and fiscal impact to current residents. 

There’s no doubt that growth is costly, especially in areas that aren’t designed for it and lack infrastructure. When new growth occurs in areas with the infrastructure already in place, and goes through a subdivision process to identify and mitigate impacts, it’s less likely to impact your pocketbook. With big developers in the driver’s seat, locals would have no say in where large-scale development goes, where they want to preserve open space or farmland, and where they want to limit urban sprawl. 

People

When a development application is heard by county commissioners, county staff, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality staff, and local first responders have the opportunity to bring up concerns about the impact the development will have on the community. By removing this hearing, HB643 could result in developments that are detrimental to the community’s health and quality of life. 

The subdivisions that would pop up as a result of this bill will directly impact our air quality and health. More houses being built outside of Idaho’s municipalities means more residents will rely on long commutes to work, school, and other services. Outside of the wear and tear these cars put on roads — that existing residents will pay to maintain — these cars also increase air pollution. 

Pollutants from vehicles can lead to serious health conditions like asthma and respiratory illnesses. These pollutants are adding to the air quality issues Idaho already experiences with the increasing severity of wildfires. In 2019, three Idaho cities were listed on the American Lung Association’s 25 most polluted areas in the U.S.

Residents are already overwhelmed by the burden of unmanaged growth. Idaho has been the fastest growing state in the country for the last 5 years in a row, and according to a recent study from Boise State University, 71% of Idahoans think that Idaho is growing too fast. This belief is held broadly by both longtime and newer residents, and has been expressed by Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. 

One area in which residents are feeling the impacts of growth the most is in housing affordability. A study on housing in Kootenai County found that only 24% of current residents can afford a home, compared to 75% just five years prior. The study further noted that due to a lack of affordable housing, children of current Idaho residents will be forced to leave their longtime home, and that locals will continue to be replaced with newcomers. Building mansions on scenic acreage in rural areas – the kind of housing that H643 would encourage – will only accelerate the displacement of locals. 

Environment 

Building houses in Idaho’s wildland areas could also have a huge impact on our wildfire seasons. Homes built in close proximity to wildland vegetation increase wildfire risks because there are more people in close proximity with flammable vegetation. More wildfires could be a tough pill to swallow, when Idahoans saw one of the worst wildfires seasons in history in 2021 with 225 square miles burned, which is “six times the 20-year average,” according to the East Idaho News. 

Not only does that mean more wildfires — putting nearby houses and lives at risk, and contributing to our poor air quality — but it also means the expenses of wildfires will increase. Last year, for instance, wildfires cost the state $75 million. As firefighters have to extend their efforts further and further to accommodate sprawled-out homes, expenses will continue to rise.

Development without oversight also harms our water systems. Building homes outside our municipalities means connecting sewers or installing septic tanks and drilling wells. When this is done it adds to storm runoff and erosion, resulting in poorer water quality and possible flooding. 

Next Steps

HB643 is a dangerous threat to our open space and would certainly impact Idaho communities. This bill will be heard in the House Local Government Committee next week. 

Once land is developed, it can never return to its previous state. We need to be thoughtful and purposeful about Idaho’s response to growth, to ensure that short-term profits sought by big developers won’t have detrimental long-term costs and effects on Idahoans that have called our state home for years.

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