Building officials and planners say Shoshone County construction, virtually in a coma throughout the late 1980s, finally is waking up.
The number of county building permits, according to building official Bob Bird, has risen roughly 20 percent a year for the last two years.
In 1992, Bird said, there were three new homes built in the Silver Valley. During the first quarter of this year, he expects to see 16.
At the county planning office, administrator Harold Van Asche says development applications - variances, zoning changes, conditional use permits and the like - have tripled in five years.
The county had no applications for large subdivisions from 1987 through 1990. From 1991 through 1994, there were six, including two that eventually would total more than 500 lots.
“I’m telling the planning commission and the county commissioners to plan for growth, it’s coming,” Van Asche said. “We need to wake up and smell the coffee.”
Officials acknowledge the growth is minuscule compared to nearby Kootenai County. But they see the construction as a sign the economically battered Silver Valley can survive - and perhaps thrive - as a home to part-time recreationalists, senior citizens and commuters to Coeur d’Alene and Post Falls.
“Until the last couple of years, there was a long stretch when we didn’t see any new construction at all,” said Diane Hollis, real estate agent at Tomlinson Realty in Kellogg.
Now, she says, home prices are rising rapidly. Hollis estimates that an average Silver Valley home sold for $25,000 four years ago. Today, she says, that figure is about $55,000.
Part of the reason for the growth, officials say, is the popularity of Kellogg’s Silver Mountain ski area. Condominiums have sprung up at the base of the mountain, and Van Asche is project director on a proposed 300-lot development on 140 acres between McKinley Avenue and Haystack Mountain, near the base of the ski area’s gondola.
There also is a ripple effect from Kootenai County, Hollis and others say. Increasingly, homeowners are willing to commute to work in Coeur d’Alene or Post Falls.
“Population is going to push development over here,” said Van Asche. “It’s not just retirees. People live here and work in Coeur d’Alene or Spokane. You have affordable housing and a place in the country.”
Lastly, builders say banks and developers aren’t as worried about environmental liability as they were a few years ago. On the county’s west end, 21 square miles have been declared a federal Superfund site due to contamination from mining wastes.
Although residents still are lobbying for assurances that landowners won’t be held responsible for cleanup, fears have eased. In April, the Panhandle Health District will launch a tracking system for excavation in the site, to ensure that no cleanup work is spoiled. The system, health officials say, has reassured bankers.
It’s on Superfund land that Coeur d’Alene developer Jim Hedberg wants to build a 217-lot development of homes and ski chalets. Shoshone County approved the preliminary plan for the development last month. Construction should start next year, engineer Michael Hunt said.
The future remains uncertain. The ski area’s Switzerland-based backer has said it wants to sell its interest in the facility, sending the city looking for investors. And jobs are scarce in the Silver Valley.
Still, at the Kellogg building department, Bird said he’s expecting numbers of building permits to increase 10-20 percent a year indefinitely.
And he’s encouraged by the recent construction of several “spec homes” - homes not built for anyone in particular, but with the expectation they’ll sell quickly.
“I haven’t seen a spec home since I’ve been here,” said Bird, who took the job four years ago. “And I think these will sell before the ink’s dry on the contract.”