For decades, the hills overlooking Cindy Oswald’s 120-acre horse ranch grew trees for North Idaho’s timber industry. The next crop could be 477 trophy homes and an 18-hole golf course.
Stimson Lumber Co. plans to sell 1,500 acres of commercial forestland near Farragut State Park to a California developer who wants to rezone the property for resort development. With lumber markets in a steep decline, it’s a trend that rural residents like Oswald fear they’ll see again and again.
Private timberlands comprise about one-third of Kootenai County’s 1,249 square miles. Even in a depressed real estate market, the land attracts developers who see the potential for view lots.
“We’ve seen the old timber companies change hands,” said Jack Gunderman, a Kootenai County planner. Many of the new owners, including Stimson, have real estate arms, he noted.
Stimson’s neighbors argue that rezoning the land would set a bad precedent, plopping a suburban-style development at the edge of the Kaniksu National Forest.
Oswald and her husband, Bob, moved to the Westwind Ranch 13 years ago, after encroaching houses made it difficult to keep horses at their former place on the outskirts of Hayden. “Every five-acre pasture had become a cul-de-sac,” Cindy Oswald said.
For the Oswalds, part of the attraction of Westwind Ranch was the lack of neighbors. On three sides, they were surrounded by state, federal and private forests.
“We didn’t think we’d come up against this again,” Oswald said.
Jeff Merkeley’s family owns 350 acres directly south of Stimson’s land. “I don’t know why they want to build a golf development,” said Merkeley, noting that some of the most touted residential golf communities in the nation are foundering.
Idaho’s Tamarack Resort is in bankruptcy, as is the Yellowstone Club near Big Sky, Mont., whose mega-rich clients included Bill Gates. The National Association of Realtors said sales of vacation properties dropped 31 percent last year. Fewer people have the money to buy into resort developments, Merkeley said.
“What they thought they had in equity is gone,” he said.
Others take the long-term view. Eight years ago, Stimson purchased Idaho Forest Industries. In addition to sawmills, the sale included 90,000 acres of Idaho timberland.
“Our land is an asset,” said Andrew Miller, CEO of Portland-based Stimson. While growing trees is still the best value on most of the acreage, some sites are better suited to development, he said.
Stimson is trying to rezone 12,000 acres of timberland in southern Bonner County for a luxury golf development – a project that Miller said might not take shape for years. In the meantime, developers approached the company about buying the property near Farragut.
William Bishop – an attorney, developer and former Sun Valley outfitter – is the point man on the project.
Bishop said the success of The Club at Black Rock and Gozzer Ranch drew him and Clive Clark, a golf course designer, to North Idaho. According to Bishop, he and Clark have two other partners and enough cash to wait out a lackluster economy and a soft second-home market.
“We’ve always seen this as a long-term project,” Bishop said. “Anyone coming out of the ground at the wrong time would run into disaster.”
Bishop’s portfolio includes residential golf developments in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and La Quinta, Calif. He and Clark picture the Stimson land as less lavish but still high-end.
Cabins on quarter-acre lots would sell in the $500,000 to $600,000 range, with larger trophy homes in the $1.5 million range.
“We feel the market is saturated at the extreme high end,” Bishop said.
Neighbors have nothing to fear, he said. Houses would be screened from view, and the eastern edge of the property would be dedicated open space, available for nonmotorized public use.
“There’s nothing quieter than a golf course community,” Bishop said. “The buyers don’t want neighbors; they want silence.”
But the sale depends on the rezone, as well as sufficient water. If the site can’t supply 1.5 million gallons of water to irrigate a golf course, Bishop said he’s not interested in the land.
Oswald and other opponents hope to defeat the development on zoning. At a meeting Thursday, a Kootenai County hearing examiner will take comments on the proposal. It’s the first part of a long process. Stimson’s land is currently zoned for one home per five acres, or up to 300 homes for the entire property.
Oswald’s kitchen table is piled high with paperwork. Her cell phone rings constantly. Two years ago, local residents used detailed research on traffic counts, water availability and other issues to defeat the proposed 1,500-home Rickel Ranch community near Silverwood Theme Park. Oswald, Merkeley and their neighbors are hoping for the same success.
Last week, three dozen opponents gathered at the Bayview Community Center to plot strategy. The desire to protect “rural lifestyles” was a common theme in their remarks.
When the Oswalds moved to the Westwind Ranch, “we thought we’d found paradise,” said Cindy Oswald, striding across her pasture on a recent December morning. Six months earlier, Oswald was gathering up hay in her tractor under a blazing July sun when a silver-colored coyote showed up, looking for displaced rodents. “Gifts of the harvest,” she said.
Oswald, a lanky 56-year-old, spends most of her day with a herd of Paso Fino horses. Oswald breeds, trains and sells them.
Westwind Ranch is a working horse farm, Oswald said. During haying season, the tractor starts running at dawn. In the fall, the Oswalds allow hunters on their property to cull deer and elk herds that would otherwise strip every green blade from their hayfield.
None of those uses is compatible with suburban-style densities, Oswald said.
“We’ve sacrificed a lot to live here,” she said of her family and her rural neighbors. The county should respect that, and not give developers zoning changes, Oswald said.
Rural residents presented a unified voice during Kootenai County’s comprehensive plan update, said Gunderman, the county planner.
The discussions led to a proposed “recreational-resource” designation to preserve large tracts of private forest, he said. The designation would apply to unroaded parcels, remote from city services, such as police and fire departments. Twenty acres would be the minimum lot size for building a home.
On county maps, Stimson’s 1,500 acres is proposed for “recreational-resource” designation. But the new comp plan hasn’t been adopted yet, Gunderman said. Putting the designation into effect would also require changes to zoning laws, he said.
Terry Harris, an attorney for Kootenai Environmental Alliance, said the county needs to be vigilant to prevent local forests from being carved into small pieces. The Stimson land is elk winter range. It provides a buffer to the national forest, he said.
“I think the development pressures are going to continue,” Harris said. “The economics of forestry is changing, and as these forest industry parcels get put up for sale, they’re going to look irresistible to developers. Everybody wants a big, green backyard.”
Stimson’s Miller, however, scoffs at the idea that timberland is under widespread pressure.
“If you fly over North Idaho and look over all the land, there’s a scratch of development going on,” he said. “There are huge swaths of land that would never have an economic value beyond growing trees.”