Wednesday, June 8, 2005

Camas County warily eyes growth phenomenon

'We're trying to keep our head above water here'


By REBECCA MEANY
Express Staff Writer

At High Country Fusion, in Fairfield, pieces of polyethylene piping are fused together, creating an impervious bond. The company's half-million-dollar fusion machine joins pieces to make joints, elbows, Ts and long runs of pipe. The products are installed locally in Triumph, Stanley and Aberdeen, Idaho, as well as worldwide in places such as Kona, Hawaii, and Saudi Arabia. Reviewing the alignment process in creating a 36-inch diameter elbow are, from left to right, David Hanks, Steve Wilson, Walt Pierce and Darwin High. Photo by Willy Cook

Second in a Series

At high noon last Wednesday, the dusty streets of Fairfield were stirred by little more than wind.

But the rustic quiet of a mid-week day in the county seat of Camas County belied the activity in the courthouse annex.

Inside, Earl Wilson's brow furrowed slightly.

The county's planning and zoning administrator and building inspector sat behind a desk on his first day as a full-time employee. For a year, his job required him to be in the office three days a week. But lately, interest in county building and zoning matters has expanded his work.

"I knew it was coming," he said. "I was going to start (full time) in October, but the commissioners decided it needed to happen now."

The sense of urgency stems from work piling up on Wilson's desk. More people are buying land, and more people are building in the heretofore backwater county in south central Idaho.

During 1998, Camas County issued 25 building permits—both residential and agricultural. By last year, Wilson said, that number had doubled.

"Blaine County having a moratorium (on new housing subdivisions) is fueling this, then Lincoln County followed suit," he said. "We're trying to keep our head above water here. But we have a lot to deal with and that's why I'm here full time."

Communities throughout the Intermountain West are experiencing a growth phenomenon, Wilson said.

"All of Idaho's experiencing growth," he added. "Lo and behold, even the places where nobody wanted to live are even filling up."

A lot of people are buying second homes in the county, he said, but many others are looking to settle themselves on the prairie.

"As the richer and richer folks force people out (of Blaine County), we become a bedroom community," Wilson said.

For real estate agents, this past winter was a good one.

"Last year we had quite a few listings," said Scott Marolf of Strickland Realty. "Usually winter is slow. This winter was the busiest in the four years (we've been doing this)."

He attributes the busy season to speculation that a relocated Wood River Valley airport would find its way to Camas County.

"There are a lot of new residents, too, in Camas County," he said.

Although Lincoln County has until now absorbed most of Blaine County's runaways, Camas County is becoming another attractive option for some homebuyers.

"There's more open space and not as many lava rocks and rattlesnakes," Marolf said.

"Prices are going up a little, but not as much as Blaine County," he said. "A lot is the cost of materials. Property is going up but it's still the cheapest around. People want to get a little more for what they have."

"A lot of people come in with the expectation that it'll be cheaper," he added. "Compared to Blaine County it is, but not as much as they anticipate."

Scott Marolf's father, Realtor Fred Marolf, said a half dozen years ago 80 people made the daily commute to the Wood River Valley. Today, that number is closer to 200.

"It's creating a rental market that didn't exist before. (Houses) are being rented out really quick," he said.

Fred Marolf, a Fairfield resident since 1971, recalled local ball games where the crowd was filled with familiar faces.

In the past few years, though, strangers appeared in the stands.

"You wonder if the whole opposing team came out," he said. "Then you realize they're all supporting the home team."

The county has seen its fortunes rise and fall—changes that sometimes forced locals to reinvent themselves.

"We've done a lot of things in this town to try to survive," Fred said.

Older residents he's talked with seem to be mostly against growth, he said, and they lament a way of life that's slipping away. To some degree, he sympathizes with them, but he also sees a need for more services to provide for residents, and for more residents to support those services.

"Fairfield was slowly dying on the vine," he said. "A new business would come on and it wouldn't be a matter of months before they'd give up."

Still, there's opposition, even resentment, from some county residents.

"With the drought they're really having a hard time," he said. To keep going, some have sold off some of their land for development.

"It gets them some cash flow and keeps them going a little while longer," he said. "Whether they like it or not, it's saving some guys."

Up the street, business has been good for Chris Bradley. Bradley, a nine-year Fairfield resident, opened Soldier Creek Brewing Co. two years ago.

From the front windows of his coffee and lunch spot on Soldier Road, he sees more newcomers.

"There're more 5B (Blaine County) license plates," he said. "Mostly in the last six months."

Sales at the cafe have doubled since last year.

"It seems like there's more of a younger crowd, people in their 30s and 40s, that are buying homes here," Bradley said.

Some of his friends in the construction industry have been keeping busy building new homes. Others are remodeling older homes and renting them.

"The few (construction) companies that are established here, they're staying plenty busy," he said. "But there are still people I see (commuting) ... the same cars go by every morning. I don't even know who they are."

Changes in Camas County have yet to translate into a large influx of students into the school system, but the district is feeling some growing pains.

Three years ago, the school district had 150 students. Now, 175 attend classes in the district, Superintendent Ed Marshall said.

This spring, the town unveiled a new elementary and middle school building, but school officials worried there would not be enough funds to keep it staffed.

On June 1, residents passed with a 65 percent approval rate a supplemental levy in the amount of $180,000.

"The reasons for the supplemental levy are two-fold," Marshall said. "One is that we have consistently had $14,000 in Title I money. We just found out in April we're not poor enough."

Although the district is challenging the decision, an outcome may not be reached for some time.

"We're becoming a little more like Blaine County," he said. "I can't believe the cost of property."

Additionally, a population shift resulting in fewer secondary kids is resulting in a loss of $43,000 in state money.

"Because of the shift in population there's a negative impact of funding received from the state, as well as loss of federal dollars on the Title I program," he said. "If we get more population, it would help us."

According to the most recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau, the county's population in 2003 was 1,049, a 5.9 percent increase over the year 2000.

But those figures don't take into account recent growth, which by casual estimates has been greatly accelerated.

"There's been a little more height in crime slowly for the last couple years," said Sheriff Dave Sanders. "The more people who live here and commute, the more people are on the road."

The Camas County Sheriff's Department is fully staffed—for now—with three deputies, one of whom is serving in Iraq. The department hired a deputy to fill the position temporarily, but the sheriff has asked commissioners to write that position into the budget.

"They're going to have to because of our growth," Sanders said.

A few years ago, the Sheriff's Department had about 70 cases per year, ranging from stolen-wallet reports to car accidents in the 688,000 acres they patrol. Now, they tackle 100 cases per year, Sanders said.

"I attribute it to growth," he said. "I'm for a little growth. But too much of that is going to be hard. We're not ready for it."

Fairfield Mayor David Hanks recognizes the desirability of the area and wants to ensure that change happens with planning and oversight.

"If we keep going this route without annexation, the city of Fairfield could be built out in the next two years," he said.

City officials are looking at expanding the area of city impact on the north side of town. Also, in the past year they've enacted ordinances to require development agreements, road standards and water-system specifications.

For Hanks, who also is vice president of High Country Fusion Co., growth will provide incentive for residents to stay and raise families in Camas County.

Although he's met with some resistance, one of his goals as mayor is to create job opportunities so people don't have to commute to the Wood River Valley.

"We've got a sense from a government standpoint of trying to encourage some of this growth," he said. "If we are going to survive as a city, we've got to reinvent ourselves. It was becoming a do-or-die situation."

By 7 p.m. Wednesday, a dozen vehicles were parked on Soldier Road, the town's main street. A few people began sauntering in to Breezie's Outlaws Bar & Grill.

Cindy Broxson pulled up a barstool, ordered a cold drink and talked about the 10 years she's called Fairfield home.

"I spent seven years trying to make a living on the prairie," she said. "There isn't any work here. Three years ago I gave up and went back to Bellevue."

Every morning, her carpool joins the line of traffic snaking its way to the Wood River Valley.

"You get on top of Moonstone and you look back and it's nothing but headlights," she said. "(Fairfield) is as close as you can get (for affordable housing)."

Besides few job opportunities, the lack of services makes small-town living hard, she said. She hopes for growth, and soon.

"I'd love to not have to make an 80-mile round trip to get my oil changed or to buy a T-shirt," she said. "I'd love an ATM."

Breezie, too, welcomes growth, because in the past six months business has been hurting.

Customer numbers have inexplicably dropped from about 2,000 per week to 400.

"I'm hoping I can hang on long enough 'til more (Blaine County residents) move down," she said.

Coming Next: Blaine's southern neighbors, Lincoln and Jerome counties.




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