Unfinished zombie housing developments haunt the rural West

  • Timberline Ranch in Victor, Idaho, has 81 lots platted, and some infrastructure, including this bank of mailboxes. But just one lot has been sold and built upon; the other 80 are still owned by the developers.

    Bradly j. Boner
  • Horseshoe Meadows, near Driggs, was subdivided in 2006 with lots ranging from about 3 acres to 10 acres, listed at more than $200,000 each. Today, most of the subdivision is still unoccupied, and it's possible to buy a lot for less than $100,000.

    Bradly j. Boner
  • Matt Hail was developing two subdivisions in Teton Valley when the housing market tanked in 2008. Because of his development agreement with Teton County, Hail is required to finish the infrastructure in the subdivisions, in several phases over the next four years, despite having sold only four of the 44 lots. "All we can do is keep moving forward," Hail said. "I've put everything I have into this."

    Bradly j. Boner
  • Teton Springs, the county's first big resort-style development, was approved in 2000, but today there are still hundreds of vacant lots.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • Angie Rutherford became Teton County's planning administrator during a volatile time. Part of her job is to mitigate tension between longtime valley farmers and ranchers who fiercely defend their rights as property owners and those who want more assertive regulations on development.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • Anna Trentadue, program director and staff attorney for Valley Advocates for Responsible Development, has been working with local developers to help replat zombie subdivisions, so they'll have less impact on the environment and be more appealing to buyers.

    Bradly J. Boner
  • Bruce Arnold, a fourth-generation farmer, sits on Teton County's planning commission and has a reputation for fairness when considering planning and development issues facing the county.

    Bradly J. Boner

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The politics of growth in Teton County begins with the Mormons, who are generally strong proponents of property rights. In the early 1990s, they still made up about 70 percent of the county's population, according to the Idaho Falls Post-Register. Mormons owned most of the farmland and allied with developers to keep land-use regulations weak.

Teton County created a comprehensive plan in 1993, spurred by a state law that required all Idaho counties to have plans and zoning. But Teton County imposed only two zoning categories for developing the farmland, allowing 20-acre lots and 2.5-acre lots. And those general regulations were loosely enforced. As the number of subdivisions began to soar, Teton County spent several years crafting, and arguing over, a new comprehensive plan that was finalized in 2004 and a 2005 PUD (Planned Unit Development) ordinance. Those frameworks gave lip service to managing development more carefully, but mostly they allowed a hodgepodge of much denser rural subdivisions and the explosion of new lots. From 1998 to 2006, the county only had a part-time planning administrator, Larry Boothe, an ex-CIA agent who was a fervent property-rights advocate generally in favor of development. Another key leader, County Commissioner Roger Hoopes, even became a developer himself while in office: He helped launch River Rim Ranch in 2004.

Increased density is usually considered smart growth, at least when a project is in a town or close to one, or if it's carefully designed to preserve the landscape in a rural area. Most local governments use the PUD procedure to negotiate with developers, offering them "density bonuses" -- permission to have more lots and houses than the zoning allows -- if they cluster the houses to preserve wildlife corridors, open space and other public values. But many of Teton County's  subdivisions were either far from towns, or they formed a continuous suburbanization of farmland extending miles outward from town boundaries. And developers didn't have to make many concessions to get huge increases in density. Don Elliott, a senior consultant with Denver-based Clarion Associates, a land-use planning firm retained by Teton County recently to sort out its mess, says that a typical PUD awards a density bonus of 10 to 25 percent. Teton County gave density bonuses of 900 percent to 1,500 percent, expecting little or nothing in return. "These were very, very generous bonuses -- not something you would commonly see in a rural county," says Elliott.

The politics of growth began to shift, though, as an increasing number of newcomers who favored landscape preservation allied with locals who felt the same way. They helped organize a key local conservation group, Valley Advocates for Responsible Development, or VARD, in 2001 to oppose a development in a wetland area. (They won a lawsuit, but the county eventually approved the project anyway, with only minor modifications.) VARD challenged other subdivisions and tried to persuade the county government to impose impact fees -- requirements that developers pay some of the county's costs of providing roads, schools, law enforcement and other services. VARD wanted subdivisions to be concentrated in and next to towns, rather than creating more rural sprawl. The group brought in pro-planning speakers and held workshops with the help of the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute and the Massachusetts-based Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, which work on these issues around the West.

Anna Trentadue grew up in Moscow, Idaho, a liberal college town, and worked as a river guide, then got a law degree and joined VARD's staff in 2007. She remembers attending Teton County meetings and "hearing developers say, 'I need to do this NOW, because the bank is willing to finance and ... I'm ENTITLED to this. You HAVE to approve my project because I'm entitled (and) the market is hot.' " Developers and landowners also intimidated county officials by threatening to file lawsuits if projects were delayed, says Trentadue.

Teton County's subdivisions were "chipping away at the very heart of why people come here, and that's what we were recognizing and why there was some panic in the conservation community," says Jeff Klausmann, a wetlands scientist who runs a local consulting firm called Intermountain Aquatics. He arrived in 1991 as a fishing guide, and eventually helped create a "wildlife overlay" map that was intended to shape developments to preserve wildlife habitat. The overlay didn't have as much effect as many hoped, but it was a step in the right direction, he says. He rhapsodizes about the songbirds in the aspen groves at the edges of the farmland, and the 2,000 greater sandhill cranes that migrate through, drawn by ripening barley in the autumn as well as the local wetlands.

The newcomers also included people who worked in outdoor recreation, as well as many who commuted to all kinds of jobs in Jackson. By 2006, the Mormon contingent -- a proxy for the Old West community -- had slipped to roughly 46 percent of the county's population. That year, voters elected two new Democratic county commissioners who wanted tougher regulations, with one defeating Hoopes, the incumbent who was developing River Rim Ranch. They formed a majority on the three-seat commission, and quickly imposed a moratorium on new subdivisions. But the property-rights camp rebelled, trying to recall them from office and filing a lawsuit against the moratorium; they survived the recall election, although the moratorium got overturned in court. Then, in 2008, the smart-growth camp won another county commissioner seat in a dramatic fashion: They elected Kathy Rinaldi, a former head of VARD, who also had worked as a wilderness guide. They thereby gained control of the county government. The political divide over planning "is really not partisan -- it's New West versus Old West," Rinaldi says. "It's almost generational."

The year Rinaldi was elected, the county commission finally imposed a modest impact fee -- $2,000 per lot in new subdivisions, not enough to cover the county's full costs of providing services, according to many. But by then, it was mostly too late. The bust had hit, and the county was overrun by zombies. David L. Kearsley, vice president of the local Bank of Commerce, remembers the boom collapsing almost overnight. Before then, "Some of the speculators and developers were offering (farmers) more money than they could see making if they worked for the rest of their lives," he says. "We were flying by the seat of our pants ... we just kept pushing developments (in) an artificial market ... then, in August of 2007, it quit. It was like a curtain dropped. We've only sold a few crumbs since then." Those who made their deals during the boom and backed off before the bust "made a lot of money. Those at the end, they lost a lot of money. Some made a lot of money -- then lost everything."