David Callahan doesn't come off as a guy who gets easily rattled.
It's a good quality to have as the government official charged with overseeing development in Kootenai County, one of the fastest-growing areas in the country and a place that also happens to be famously anti-government. Whether he's fielding complaints from citizens or chatting with elected leaders, Callahan looks unbothered. He stands taller than most. He speaks easily, with a slow Texas drawl that makes him sound a lot like Dr. Phil. His approach to land-use planning is beautiful in its simplicity: "We may disagree on what our gods demand of us, but we can still agree on where to put the stop sign."
The thing that keeps him up at night? The sense that Kootenai County is soon going to reach a tipping point. Idaho is growing faster than any state in the nation, and Kootenai County is growing at an even higher rate than the state as a whole. The county added roughly 26,000 people from 2008 through 2018, according to the Idaho Department of Labor. That's a 19.1 percent increase, more than double the national rate.
Much of that growth has taken place in Coeur d'Alene, the largest city in the county with a population of roughly 53,000. Even more of it took place in Post Falls, which is projected to take over as the county's largest city sometime this decade and reach 100,000 people by 2040 if the trend continues. But it's also spilled into the unincorporated parts of the county, creeping north up the Rathdrum Prairie in the form of what Callahan says are almost exclusively new single-family homes. And they're often homes for people moving to North Idaho to escape congestion, to absorb the beauty of the lakes and the mountains and surround themselves with like-minded conservatives.
And with that comes a whole set of new problems to solve for a community planner like Callahan. Traffic congestion frustrates drivers. Questions about the availability of water bubble up. Residents resist growth, wanting to preserve the way things used to be, while others encourage it on the principle that the government shouldn't interfere in any way. And then, of course, there are still others who believe any government land-use plan is part of a global conspiracy.
It may have a distinct Idaho flavor, but it's a story that Callahan, who grew up in Texas and was a city planner in Colorado, has seen before. Soon, the community will need to make difficult decisions. How will the county pay for the transportation improvements that are estimated to cost nearly $1 billion in the next 20 years just to keep traffic the way it is today? And at what point, Callahan asks, will the community think about rejecting sprawl and shifting growth into the cities, which are better equipped to handle it?
"As a community, we've got to come to grips with the fact that we are growing," he says. "If we don't do something now in the way of good planning practice, it will only be a matter of time before the thing that attracts people to the area is ruined."
Tony Ambrosetti has lived in Kootenai County for more than 25 years. For most of that time, he's lived in Pleasant View, an area of secluded fancy homes in the hills southwest of Post Falls, since retiring from the military. He enjoys his chunk of property near the top of a hill surrounded by a thicket of trees. But in recent years, he and his Pleasant View neighbors have noticed a change. It's not just that more people are discovering the area, buying property and subdividing the land. It's that, simultaneously, their private water wells are starting to dry up.
The problem is they have to prove it. In the last year and a half, Ambrosetti and a group of a dozen people set out to understand the extent of the issue by surveying homeowners with private wells. He spoke to people who had to ration their water or haul it in on trucks. Last year, they asked Kootenai County Commissioners to consider a moratorium on subdivisions, until more was known about the water availability in the area. It took two meetings for all the neighbors to make their case, filling the room in their faded blue jeans, camouflage coats and cowboy hats. Ambrosetti, with his thick black mustache, shared a PowerPoint presentation earlier this month in which he revealed that 58 percent of the 76 neighbors surveyed either had dry wells or saw some decrease in the water available to use in their homes. It's not a scientific study, Ambrosetti admits, but he argues it should be enough for the county to put a hold on subdivisions in order to conduct a more scientific analysis of the water.
"We submit that the overall situation of Pleasant View residents takes precedence over individuals to subdivide," Ambrosetti says.
These are the kind of issues Kootenai County is bound to run into. County commissioners are hosting more of these contentious meetings, with packed rooms divided over whether to support a particular development or prevent others. In December, for instance, a proposal to change the zoning code to allow a commercial project on Lake Coeur d'Alene's Wolf Lodge Bay drew plenty of controversy before it was discovered that the property already had a commercial designation and the public comment was for nothing. While some residents will be resistant to growth in the unincorporated county no matter what, there are often real questions — mostly about resources available and traffic — to be answered. And some of that conflict is driven by the type of person moving to the area and what they're looking for.
"The people who are moving here are mostly retirees. They spent their life in California or Colorado or Texas, they now have a million dollars after selling their home and they can build a half-million-dollar home here that's twice the size," Callahan says.
The stats suggest he's on the right track: Of the roughly 80,000 people who moved to Idaho in 2018, more than a one-quarter came from California, and about 18 percent came from Washington, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Kootenai County added 15,000 people from 2015 to 2019, and two out of every five of those people were age 65 and older, says Sam Wolkenhauer, a regional economist for the Idaho Department of Labor. As housing prices rise, so is the population's median age and median income.
In the unincorporated areas of the county, that means an influx of homes built on 5-acre lots following no particular pattern as to where they're built, Callahan says. In 2019, the county approved 66 minor subdivisions, consisting of four or fewer lots, which is almost double what was approved the year prior. Besides Pleasant View, a few residents have complained that their private wells are running dry if not connected to the Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer.
But for Callahan, transportation is a bigger concern. Almost all of the county's transportation is tied to single-family homes, and eventually "systems start to get overloaded," Callahan says. The average commute time for a worker in Kootenai County has shot up in the last several years, census data shows. People aren't happy with the traffic now, Callahan says, and the estimated nearly $1 billion to maintain that level of service in the next 20 years means the county will need to "get creative" to find ways to meet that need.
One way to meet that need could be building where infrastructure is already in place. From an urban planning perspective, it's easier, more sustainable and often cheaper to make transportation improvements when the growth is compact in urban areas, rather than spread out, says Alexandra Monjar, district council manager for the Urban Land Institute of Idaho. More density also is the best way to preserve the green space in North Idaho that everyone loves, she says.
But those principles, to some North Idaho conspiracy theorists, sound a lot like Agenda 21, a decades-old voluntary action plan of the United Nations offering suggestions for sustainable development. The conspiracists are threatened by government land-use planning, seeing it as a plot to force them into cities and away from their rural way of life. Kootenai County Commissioner Bill Brooks says this idea is prevalent enough that when they interview people for the planning advisory board, he asks each one if they've ever heard of Agenda 21 as a way to determine if they believe in the conspiracy surrounding it.
"They're chihuahuas with megaphones," Brooks says. "I reject that kind of thinking totally."
Still, Brooks has a background in real estate, and he's a big proponent of growth as long as it's guided and managed. He has a distaste for those who moved to the area and want to "freeze time," so no one else can enjoy it.
So when an issue comes up like the Pleasant View neighbors claiming they're running out of water, Brooks is in an interesting position. He hears arguments during public comment that this moratorium request on new subdivisions was a thinly veiled attempt to prevent others from enjoying the area. Others say it would be government overreach, setting a new precedent for property owners in the county. Still, initially, Brooks was in favor of the moratorium in order to prevent a possible situation where more people run out of water. But a week later, when the commission took a vote, Brooks voted against it, feeling that the evidence presented was only anecdotal. The moratorium failed. Those who wish to subdivide only need to "demonstrate the likelihood" that new or existing wells provide sufficient water without impacting neighbors, and in some cases will need to do a hydrogeological analysis.
But Pleasant View neighbors like Ambrosetti were frustrated.
"I'm not trying to deny people what I have," Ambrosetti says. "But we're already behind the curve. We do not have a handle on the situation."
When Ron Jacobson moved to Post Falls with his wife in 1982, it was a small town of some 6,000 people where housing was cheap. Today, Jacobson is the mayor of the city, which is home to roughly 35,000 people. He's told that number could triple in the next 20 years.
"I'm hoping that's wrong," Jacobson says.
Still, it's something the city is planning for. No city in North Idaho is growing like Post Falls is. As Coeur d'Alene runs out of space, Post Falls has plenty. The days of it being a bedroom community for Spokane and Coeur d'Alene seem to be numbered. Last year, Post Falls saw an explosion of new housing permits: 587 permits for new single-family residential units, which is more than double the count just five years earlier. Also last year, the number of new multifamily units matched that of single-family, which hadn't happened in years prior.
Post Falls Community Development Director Bob Seale sees this as an opportunity. It's an opportunity not only to decide what kind of city Post Falls wants to be, but also to take some of the pressure off the surrounding county.
"Watching single-family subdivisions sprawling across the prairie, and farmlands slowly disappearing, I kind of look at it and I want to see a mixture of housing types ... with potentially higher density than single-family homes."
"The biggest pushback we get is on development projects that are strictly multifamily projects," Seale says.
That's why he's looking at other regulations that encourage mixed developments. The city is in the process of updating its master plan, which was last updated in the mid-2000s. It includes plans to update zoning regulations to encourage taller, denser and more mixed housing types in certain areas. The city is also looking to create a new urban renewal district for downtown.
"We're trying to balance the rights of those who live here now with the rights of those who want to live here, or those who want to develop their land so that others can come into the area," Seale says.
Jacobson has mixed feelings about how the city is growing. He'd be happy if Post Falls stayed the way it is now, even if he knows that's not possible. At times, his philosophy on growth differs from his own community planning department. He's more resistant to density in the city, specifically the "sheer number" of multifamily housing units coming in, though he finds himself reminding people that apartments don't automatically equate to more crime.
"The fact that people live in apartments doesn't make them lawbreakers," Jacobson says.
He'd personally like to see the new development tilt towards the commercial — more new breweries and restaurants close by, for instance. As for the idea that housing density is needed in the city to preserve the prairie outside city limits, Jacobson is dubious.
"I don't believe that's going to preserve the prairie. You're going to have higher density and they're still going to develop on the prairie," he says.
Either way, Seale says they're not anticipating the steady growth in Post Falls to slow down. And for Seale, it's his job to implement a vision matching that of the mayor and City Council and, ultimately, the people.
"I'm trying to balance all of that," Seale says. "My opinion may be different than theirs, but in the end, I'm working to implement their vision."
Meanwhile, nearby Coeur d'Alene is in the midst of similar growing pains — though at a more advanced stage. As it's run out of space to grow outward, it's starting to grow upwards. That means developers have started to take advantage of a law on the books allowing them to double the number of residences per acre allowed, from 17 to 34. In Post Falls, the community is concerned with any multifamily development, says Coeur d'Alene city planner Hilary Anderson, who used to have the same job in Post Falls. In Coeur d'Alene, they are more open to it, although the idea of doubling the density of a project makes residents squeamish.
"Those have become quite controversial," Anderson says.
Terry Godbout, the creator of a Facebook page called "We the People of CDA," created a change.org petition to prevent developers from using that law, known as "R34." He argues there should be more planning before allowing hundreds of apartments to go up "without thought to the traffic at certain times of the day, the gridlock." But in general, he knows densification is necessary in Coeur d'Alene.
"It's kind of like, instead of doing things differently as we grow, we're going to have to do things differently in areas we've already grown to," Godbout says.
WILL IT STOP?
North Idaho may be growing steadily, but it's not exactly overflowing with people. Its estimated population of 161,000 is miniscule compared to, say, Orange County in California, which packs more than 3 million people into less space.
Still, more steady growth is inevitable in Kootenai County. Wolkenhauer, the regional labor economist, says it's possible it might slow down, but he's projecting a steady 2.2 percent annual growth going forward — with retirees making up a significant portion of that.
That means ideological clashes are on the horizon. There will be more debates over whether to allow a new subdivision in the county, or a new apartment complex in the city. There will be those who want the government out of the way, and those who ask the government to protect their resources.
That's what Callahan means when he repeats that Kootenai County will soon be at a "tipping point."
"My real singular concern is that we don't become polarized here over land use," he says. "I would hope that we can see beyond our differences in how government ought to operate to come together and find solutions for good land use planning."
In other words, agree on where to put the stop sign. ♦
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Wilson Criscione writes about education and social services in the Inland Northwest in addition to chronicling the transformation in North Idaho. Though he lives in Spokane, North Idaho has a special place in his heart. It's where he got married, where he visits his family and where he spends his favorite days — any time he can get to the lake. You can reach him at 325-0634 ext. 282 or firstname.lastname@example.org.