Kathy Alder's election to the Canyon County Commission on Nov. 4 has some in the agricultural community rejoicing.
Alder, who is president of the Canyon County Farm Bureau and raises corn, beans, alfalfa and beef cattle, will bring a farmer's viewpoint to land-use planning decisions. For one thing, she believes the Canyon County Commission has made it too easy to build subdivisions on agricultural land using conditional use permits, a practice that has led to lawsuits and ethics charges.
Alder and some other farmers think the commission is overusing CUPs to change zoning from agricultural to residential. This allows them to quickly approve projects that otherwise would not fit the county's comprehensive plan, which defines what can be built where.
"Maybe we need to redefine what a conditional use permit is issued for," Alder said. "I think we have a good comprehensive plan in Canyon County. I think we need to get back to following the plan."
Promoting orderly growth in and around established cities would help keep the cost of building infrastructure and providing city and county services low, and would ease traffic patterns, said Alder. It would also protect farmers, who often find themselves suddenly surrounded by residential developments.
That can be a major problem for farmers, said Teri Ottens, secretary of the Canyon County Farm Bureau. For instance, when new homes are built nearby, farmers have to give up aerial crop dusting and invest in ground sprayers, which can cost as much as $85,000. They also get dogs in their fields and complaints from neighbors, she said.
Subdivision traffic can be a problem for farmers trying to drive combines or livestock trailers, Alder said.
Ottens is thrilled to have her colleague on the Canyon County Commission and hopes she'll put the brakes on some development. Ottens and her husband clashed with the county earlier this year over a 103-home subdivision that was approved near their house using a CUP. The commission approved it despite the county Planning and Zoning staff's recommendation to deny the subdivision because the number of houses exceeded densities for an agricultural area.
Ottens and her husband sued the commission, claiming it was improper under the Local Land Use Planning Act to use conditional use permits to change zoning and density. They claimed the rezoning process—a longer process that involves looking at the effect on surrounding lands—should be used instead. They dropped the lawsuit when they realized it could get too expensive.
Later, the Ottenses filed ethics charges against Commissioner Steve Rule, claiming he took bribes when he accepted campaign contributions from the subdivision developer before ruling in favor of the project.
Alder has other backers on the conditional use permit issue. Harold Nevill, who heads the Alliance for Responsible Growth in Canyon County and supported Alder's candidacy, said he believes the comprehensive plan shouldn't be deviated from except in unusual circumstances. "The comp plan is way more than 'just a guide,'" he said.
Commissioner David Ferdinand thinks some of these farmers and land-use activists are ignoring one important factor: It's often farmers who are developing their own agricultural land into houses.
"If a farmer doesn't want to farm anymore, what do you suggest they should do?" he said. "We cannot force a farmer to continue to farm."
"That's the excuse they use all the time," Ottens said. But she said it's the Canyon County Commission that has created that situation, as well.
Farmers are often forced to sell their land to buy more land farther out and away from development simply because operating a farm close to subdivisions can be prohibitively expensive. And because developers can usually count on the commission to change zoning from agricultural to residential, they can afford to pay top dollar to retiring farmers for their land, something young farmers who might want to continue farming the land can't afford to do.
"They say, 'We can't tell them they can't develop their own land,'" she said. "Yes you can. That's what zoning is all about."