Until recently, the small agricultural community of Carey issued four or five building permits a year. Now the eastern Blaine County town of 513 people is processing seven subdivision applications that total 400 lots.
Growth in the Wood River Valley has finally reached Carey. Whether they welcome that growth or dread it, Carey residents know that within a few years, life there will never be the same.
"Carey could quadruple in size in the next 10 years," said city Planning and Zoning Administrator Sarah Mecham.
The town's first major subdivision was Carey View Estates, whose 36 lots are still under development along Highway 93 on the southern edge of town.
"When that subdivision first came in, everybody was telling the applicant, 'You're insane—those lots aren't going to sell,'" Mecham said. "Within a day or two, all the lots were sold."
Lots that just three years ago were selling for $20,000 now go for $70,000. But that still sounds like a bargain to buyers accustomed to Wood River Valley prices. Dick Castle, whose Ketchum Builders Corp. developed six of the lots in Carey View Estates, said every buyer of those homes came from Hailey.
"They're relocating out of the valley because of the cost of building there," Castle said.
Robb Peck, owner of Horseshoe "S" Reality in Picabo, said most of his clients looking for property in Carey are young couples and families, but he's also sold to retired people who owned homes in Hailey and realized they could pay off their mortgages and buy a home in Carey for a lot less money.
Carey city officials are scrambling to build the infrastructure to accommodate the swarm of new residents that are on their horizon. Without even a mayor until 1996, the town is going through a crash course in local planning. City water pipes need to be doubled in size. The sewer system is at about 70 percent capacity; grant money is being sought to expand it. A consultant has been hired to advise the city on the imposition of development impact fees so that current residents don't foot the bill for new development. Citizens' meetings are held to determine how to establish some kind of law enforcement presence.
"We need to find out what the impact's going to be from all these future subdivisions," Mayor Rick Baird said at a City Council meeting in August on the proposed Lakes at Waterford subdivision, which will add 66 homes to the town. "This is just the tip of the iceberg. It's going to continue for some time."
There's lots of space for that growth to spread into. Of the 2,300 acres that comprise the city limits, only 320 have been developed, Peck said. But every acre that gets developed means that Carey becomes a little less agricultural and a little more suburban.
"There are a lot of farmers and ranchers who have been struggling," Mecham said. "When someone comes in and offers them $2 million for their property, it's hard to turn it down."
Carey residents seem about evenly split on whether that change in character will be good for their town. Some are saddened by the prospect of losing the small-town, everyone's-part-of-one-big-family feel. Others welcome the influx of new customers, new businesses and a new vibrancy.
"We need the growth," said Kyle Castle, Dick Castle's son, who just put in the town's second gas station at the local highway intersection. "I would think any business in Carey is going to want growth. The talk of the town growing—that's why we built when we did."
Town librarian Mary Bowman said she sees new faces in the library every week now.
"It's wonderful," she said. "I'm thinking that some day we'll get a new library."
Other residents hope enough businesses will get established that they will no longer have to make the 45-minute or hour-long commute to Hailey or Ketchum. That would also decrease response time for emergency services, whose volunteer staff often get called while they're at work in the Wood River Valley.
"We don't want to become a bedroom community for Hailey," Mecham said. "We're working on establishing an independent community here."
She said the city is working with the Magic Valley Rural Economic Development Association, which helps obtain state grants to expand local infrastructure to meet business needs, and supplies low-interest loans to businesses locating in small towns. Carey has already become somewhat of a center for small woodworking businesses, and another one is on its way from Aspen, Colo. A branch office of Wyoming-based Summit Bank is under construction downtown.
"I think the town is going to need more industry," said Boyd Stocking, who has lived in Carey for 63 years. "Every town has to grow a little bit or it gets stagnant."
But everyone knows those benefits will come at a price.
"Most of the people who have been here a long time don't like the growth too well," said Rick Reay, who comes from a family of long-time Carey residents. "The people who like the quiet town life—they'll lose that."
People are anxious about the likelihood of rising property taxes and more crime. Randy Murphy, who owns a business in Bellevue and has lived in Carey for more than 20 years, probably speaks for a lot of residents when he says he welcomes growth as long as the new developments pay their way.
"If the current residents are stuck with the water and sewer, then I don't like it," he said.
The crime rate has already risen from virtually zero to low—but that's a disquieting trend for people who aren't accustomed to locking their doors. With the Blaine County Sheriff's Office about 30 miles away, law enforcement is sporadic. An informal system of neighbors keeping tabs on each other's homes has sufficed so far, but a public meeting was called in August to discuss whether something more is needed after a group of citizens approached Mayor Baird following a bad car accident.
"I think that was the straw that broke the camel's back," Baird said of the accident. "It's certainly obvious to me that the feeling has changed."
A meeting is scheduled for tonight at 6 p.m. at the Carey School with a representative from the sheriff's office to discuss options for more law enforcement in Carey.
Perhaps the only civic institution prepared for growth is the Carey School. A new building opened last year for seventh through 12th grades. Principal John Peck said the building was constructed with future growth in mind. With the addition of new classrooms, he said, the building's core area could support about double the 120 students it does now. He said that following the transfer of the higher grades from the elementary school building, three classrooms are vacant there now.
Though the practical problems stemming from growth are daunting enough, residents also express concern about its more intangible effects. Probably more so than any other town in Blaine County, Carey residents have deep roots in their community—roots that in many cases stretch back generations.
Librarian Mary Bowman called it "a sense of family"—one that permeates the entire community.
"You might get mad at your brother, you might get mad at your sister, but you're still family," she said. "It takes effort to continue that feeling. If somebody comes here and wants to be part of that effort, then we're open to them being part of it."
The sense of family is reinforced by a shared religious affiliation. Carey is known throughout Blaine County as a "Mormon town." Heber Kirkland, bishop for the Carey Stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, estimated that until recently about 75 percent of Carey residents belonged to the church. He said that's declining as young people move away and newcomers who are not Mormons move in. However, he said, most church members don't resent that as long as the new arrivals share their supportive community spirit.
"I think they're happy to have newcomers, that we can all be friends," he said. "Even with all the growth, the small-town values can still exist."
His wife, Rosalie Kirkland, said that church members or not, Carey residents' social lives center around family activities. Virtually everyone, she said, helps take care of other people's children. As long as that attitude prevails among new arrivals, she said, they will be welcomed.
But many are worried about how growth will affect their children's future.
"I've got kids who want to build houses around here," Rick Reay said. "They could have four or five years ago, but I don't know if they can afford to do it now. The prices have quadrupled."
Builder Dick Castle said he went to Carey because it was the last place in Blaine County where he could build for first-time home buyers. Now, he said, he's been priced out of Carey as well. After more than 35 years of building in the county, he's decided to hang it up. Without going to Shoshone, he said, it's no longer possible to find property affordable to the market he wants to build for.
Real-estate agent Robb Peck said he thinks prices will level out as the new subdivisions come on line and supply becomes reoriented with demand. However, he said he doubts they'll ever go down again.
Though local residents acknowledge that it was cheap land that brought most new arrivals to their town, they think people will discover that Carey is worth moving to simply because it's such a nice place to live. Even, as Baird said to his city council last month, "a real cool place to live." The question they all have is whether it will stay that way.
"We're still scratching our heads and wondering what we're going to look like in five years," Mecham said.