Uniquely small-town Idaho
By MYCHEL MATTHEWS
Oct. 21, 2017
TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — Ever heard of Cream Can Junction?
It's too small to be a "real town," but it's on the map, in the far southeast corner of Blaine County.
How about Rogerson, Elba or Raft River?
These, like Cream Can Junction, are a few of the many unincorporated communities — towns that aren't towns — in Magic Valley. Classified as "populated places," the communities have neither a city government nor city limits, but are bound in spirit.
So what does it take to be a "real town?"
At some point in their history, real towns have filed incorporation papers with the state of Idaho authorizing the residents to organize and govern themselves.
But for the smallest of these towns, the responsibility of self-government is a heavy burden that often requires some assistance.
WHAT MAKES A CITY?
To become a city in Idaho, a populated place must have at least 125 registered voters.
Without that critical mass, the responsibilities of providing for the safety and welfare of townsfolk would fall on too few people, said Justin Ruen, policy analyst with the Association of Idaho Cities. AIC is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that provides training and guidance to municipalities.
A populated place could incorporate today if its residents chose to do so. Sun Valley, the youngest town in Magic Valley, was founded in 1936 and incorporated in 1947. As resort towns tend to do, its population has fluctuated. In 1950, the ski resort had a population of about 428 people, but that number fell to 180 people by 1970. By 1990, the population had rebounded and climbed to more than 900. It's held steady at about 1,400 since the year 2000.
But what happens when a city's population declines and drops below that critical mass of 125 voters, therefore affecting its ability to govern itself? That decision is up to its residents, Ruen said.
Only one town in Idaho has disincorporated in the recent past: Parkline, in Benewah County, went away in 2001.
"I think they had gotten to a point where they were too small to handle their corporate responsibilities," Ruen said. "Maybe they just didn't have any reason to stay around."
Three towns in Twin Falls County have fallen below 125 voters. Murtaugh, with a population of 141, has 47 registered voters. Castleford, population 226, has 71 voters. Hollister, with a population of 277, has a bit deeper voter pool of 94.
"We usually get a pretty good turnout at elections," said Lynn Ginder, a second-term city councilwoman in Hollister.
But keeping elected officials is a different story.
In such a small town, elected officials sometimes tend to take issues personally, Ginder said. Some have resigned midterm because of personality conflicts. Others have had feelings hurt over politics and resigned.
Ginder took her husband's seat on the City Council several years ago when Tom Ginder died unexpectedly. She was officially elected to the position in November 2015.
It's been nearly impossible to keep up with changes through the years, Valerie Varadi, Twin Falls County election director, told the Times-News two years ago, when every seat on the Hollister City Council was up for grabs.
Not all small towns have such a revolving door to their council chambers, but the lack of continuity in Hollister has put the current city council in an usual position.
When re-examining the Hollister's comprehensive plan, the City Council discovered past councils, since the late 1990s, failed to hold the necessary public hearings or publish legal notices required by law. The council is now working with the AIC to correct the decades-old problem.
"We have them on speed dial now," Ginder said.
The pay doesn't attract many citizens to run for city council. Some towns compensate their council members only enough to cover the cost of their basic city services. Hollister pays its council members $51 per month — about the cost of their city utility bill.
"Most of us are just tired," Ginder said.
Castleford pays its council members $100 per month.
"You don't go after these jobs for the money," Filer Mayor Rick Dunn said. "You do it to help the community."
Dunn has an intimate relationship with small towns and country life. He recently retired as Twin Falls County's Planning and Zoning administrator and served several terms on the Filer City Council before becoming mayor.
Filer has seen a growth rate similar to Twin Falls' in the past decade. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the town's population has increased more than 50 percent in the past 15 years, from about 1,806 in 2002 to about 2,723 in 2016.
As towns grow, the dynamics change, Dunn said. More folks become interested in what goes on inside city government along the way.
That's evident in Filer, as the town recently faced its second recall effort in three years.
The latest recall attempt was launched in July when a group called Save Filer Police Department initiated the petition drive to recall Dunn and City Council members Christina Hatch, Ruby Allen and Gary Deitrick. The name of the group has since changed to Filer Citizens for Transparency and Supporting our First Responders.
Petitioners gathered signatures to force a recall, but staff at the Twin Falls County Clerk's office disqualified many of the signatures and rejected the petitions. Now, time is too short to start over the recall process before the Nov. 7 general election.
But petitioners have not put away their boxing gloves just yet. Many people whose signatures were rejected by the County Clerk's office say they are upset at what they call being disenfranchised by the county, but they don't have the funds to hire a lawyer.
"Given our controversies, we should have a good turnout at the next election," Dunn said, with his tongue in his cheek.
In less than a decade, Idaho petitioners have made 48 attempts to recall officials. Many efforts — including Filer's — have involved more than one official. About one-fourth of the efforts have resulted in recalling elected officials.
Even with its recall effort defunct, Filer is still in for a shake-up at election time. At a time when the citizens of Filer appear especially engaged, Dunn is not running for re-election and two city council incumbents are running to replace him.
THE REVOLVING DOOR
Small, rural towns have a difficult time finding people who are willing to give up their free time to run a town. That was an even more pressing issue back when Idaho had term limits for its elected positions.
Back in 1994, Idaho, along with nearly two dozen other states, passed term-limit laws. Under the law, Idaho's state and local officials were limited to eight years in office, and county commissioners and school trustees to six years.
While there are advantages to term limits at the national level, such limits can create hardships for small-town governments that have a small voter pool.
While Idaho voters had previously approved the term limits in four separate elections, the legislature repealed the state's term-limits laws in 2002.
That, however, did not end the debate; then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne vetoed the measure.
"It's a question of process, and the will of the voters cannot be ignored and must be protected," Kempthorne said at the time.
Legislators responded by gathering enough votes to override the governor's veto.
"We're very pleased with the outcome, for sure," then-House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, a Republican from Buhl, told the New York Times. Newcomb blamed out-of-state money for establishing term limits in the first place. "We were a cheap state to buy; it was not in the public interest."
AREAS OF GROWTH
Bill Crafton, director of the Twin Falls County Planning and Zoning Department, hears that question a lot.
"Property rights are some of our most misunderstood rights," Crafton said.
People want the right to control their own property — some even say planning and zoning laws are in direct violation of individual property rights. Nevertheless, the authority of local governments in Idaho to engage in planning and zoning activities comes from the Local Land Use Planning Act of 1975.
Prior to the LLUPA, land uses were restricted by specific nuisance laws. But as the population of the state grew, that piecemeal process became cumbersome.
The land use act blanketed the state with an arbitrary but logical process to protect Idaho's agricultural areas and to control where residential, commercial and industrial growth is funneled.
If people could get along, Crafton said there'd be no need for planning and zoning departments.
"We're here to protect people's rights, following a recipe to make things work," said Crafton.
The county has the authority to plan for growth — as does each city in the county — through comprehensive plans. Cities also have the authority to plan for growth outside of their borders through the city's "impact areas," which are outlined in the comprehensive plans. Those plans are where cities can detail neighborhoods they expect to annex within a 10-year span.
By law, each town in Idaho is required to have an area of impact agreement with its county to guide how and where growth will take place. These agreements are supposed to be re-evaluated every 10 years. Counties and cities often have shared control over land in impact areas. Cities will often have jurisdiction over residential, commercial and industrial zones of the impact areas, while counties have jurisdiction over agriculture zones.
The intent is to guide the town's growth in a structured, logical manner — mainly to stave off urban sprawl. Urban sprawl results in the loss of farmland, the heart of Idaho's economy.
The agriculture base, Crafton said, is why Magic Valley's economy is stable and made it through the recession in better shape than other areas.
Though rural towns are required to maintain comprehensive plans on file with their counties, the plans don't always get done. Some cities completed their plans decades ago but never updated them as required. Some started their plans but never followed through.
A PLACE TO START
For a place like Murtaugh, where the town is not growing but the impact area is booming, mayor Dee Hunsaker said a gas station would be a good place to start.
"We need to grow our little town so we can bring in more things," Hunsaker said.
Murtaugh claims to have had its start in 1905, but it didn't become a city until some 30 years later when the Dust Bowl era brought many West, and the town grew large enough to incorporate.
The town's population peaked in about 1940 at 272, which provided a healthy voter base. Today, the number of voters who actually cast a ballot is often in the single digits.
Murtaugh created an impact area in 1997, and, in the recent past, has annexed several properties in an effort to test the process. The town is now trying to expand into its populated impact area, including a "new" 16-home subdivision that sat empty for years before taking off.
Every home in the proposed annexation area is already on a city service, according to City Clerk Eli Andersen. The city has 56 utility hookups inside the city limits and 55 outside city limits.
More and more people want to live in the country, Hunsaker said, and Murtaugh fits that bill.
"We're halfway between Burley and Twin," he said. "It's an easy commute either direction."
Before the City Council can annex more homes into Murtaugh, however, officials will have to update the town's comprehensive plan, as required by law.
"I'm betting we're at least a year or two away from annexation," Hunsaker said.
North of the Snake River from Murtaugh are two more towns, Eden and Hazelton, that are renegotiating their comprehensive plans and impact areas with the county.
Jerome County Commissioner Charlie Howell said comprehensive plans are necessary and advantageous for cities, but many don't understand the benefit. In his county, only the city of Jerome has an up-to-date comprehensive plan and impact area agreement in place. Hazelton, however, is nearly finished with its agreement, and Eden recently began the process.
Eden grew from about 300 people in 1990 to 400 in 2000, and has held steady since. Hazelton has doubled its population since 1990, climbing from 400 people to about 800 now.
Kimberly, a growing bedroom community east of Twin Falls, has seen rapid growth over the past 30 years, from 2,337 in 1990 to more than 3,700 today.
It serves as a cautionary tale for setting a realistic impact area, as Kimberly's area was once huge. In the 1990s, it went north to the Snake River in order to concur with the Kimberly School District.
The city originally had jurisdiction over the construction of Hidden Lakes Estates near Dierkes Lake Park and approved the subdivision with certain concessions — a public walking path at the canyon rim, for one.
Eventually, the city council found the area too large to handle and returned much of the area north of town to county control. Today, Kimberly's impact area extends only about a mile out of town, about a half-mile north of Kimberly Road.
"For a small town with very limited staff and Planning and Zoning, we were in a little bit over our heads," said former-Mayor David Overacre. "Twin Falls County was better suited to handle that area."
City governments — even small, rural city governments — are charged with providing basic services to residents and businesses, including clean drinking water and sewer services.
Unfunded mandates, such as water-quality standards, can create a massive burden for towns that can't spread the cost over a large population base.
"That puts a lot of stress on small towns, trying to meet the same standards as a larger town with more money," Dunn said.
Filer, Castleford and Buhl's water supplies have arsenic issues. Filer is facing a multi-million-dollar fix, while Castleford and Buhl both have their systems in place.
If a town can't provide a service, it must contract it out. For example, Kimberly pays Twin Falls to process its waste. So what happens when a town is too small to provide a basic service, such as law enforcement? In Twin Falls County, the Sheriff's Office steps in and provides that service to Castleford, Murtaugh and Hollister. It does the same for unincorporated communities like Fairview and Rogerson.
For the tiny towns of south-central Idaho, several things must go right in order for the town to survive. The town needs engaged voters, a sufficient population and leadership that's willing to commit to the long haul.
Still, even if the town checks all of those boxes, sometimes they need a helping hand.
Information from: The Times-News, http://www.magicvalley.com