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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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As Rathdrum Prairie disappears, with no plan to save it, some farmers are holding out – for now

UPDATED: Sun., Aug. 22, 2021

What once was known as the Rathdrum Prairie might more accurately be described now as the “shared tier.”

That less bucolic and more bureaucratic term refers to the narrow strip of land that separates the cities of Post Falls, Rathdrum, Hayden, Coeur d’Alene and Hauser, at least for now.

Kiki Miller, a Coeur d’Alene city councilwoman, said the land in that tier is “expected to eventually be annexed” by one of those surrounding cities.

Mike Hill, a councilman from Rathdrum, said it won’t be long before all of it is, unless something is done.

“I think, quite frankly, the cities are in a race to acquire the land in the area of city impact,” Hill said, referring to a concept enshrined in Idaho law that refers to land adjacent to a city boundary that the city expects to annex. “There’s concern that if we don’t annex this into the city, it will go to the next city.”

The cities’ incentive, he said, is to expand their boundaries and pave the way for development to “secure as much tax base” as possible.

Another motivation is meeting housing demand in a county where Redfin says housing prices are up 34% over the last year, the median sales price of a home has reached $520,000 and the population is expected to swell from 170,000 to 300,000 in the next 20 years.

While Post Falls Mayor Ron Jacobson said he hates to see the prairie “disappear” and doesn’t actively solicit annexation requests from housing developers, he said developing the land is a matter of “simple supply and demand” in an area where “housing is badly needed.”

“To meet that housing need, you’ve got to develop it,” Jacobson said.

But as the odds of the prairie’s complete development and disappearance grow, so has the desire to salvage some piece of it.

After Miller helped convene a group of planners and officials from jurisdictions across Kootenai County beginning late last year to deal with pressing regional issues like rapidly escalating housing prices, increasing gridlock and crowded schools, they decided to ask the public about their top priorities related to the county’s rapid growth.

Nearly 2,700 people responded to the Regional Housing and Growth Issues Partnership’s survey, and they ranked preservation of the prairie as their most pressing concern.

While the desire for maintaining some open space is clear and a number of possible pathways to doing so have been proposed over some two decades, action has proved elusive.

If nothing is done soon to preserve open space, it’s possible, if not likely, that the last bits of the prairie could be a couple of large parcels allocated for what’s known as “land application”: irrigating with treated wastewater.

‘Our last chance’

Rand Wichman saw it coming.

“For me, I mean I’m 31 years in this business (of land-use planning), so this is no great surprise what’s occurring on the prairie or what’s occurring in Kootenai County here,” said Wichman, who currently works as city planner for Athol as well as a land-use consultant for the Jacklin Land Co., a development company with deep roots in the county’s grass-growing past and the current owner of the biggest share of the prairie’s shared tier, with 871 acres. “And I’m not special in this department.

“Those of us in the business have known for 15 years that this was coming and that some day, unless we choose to do something different, that will be the end result: We will end up three or four cities out there on the prairie and they all touch,” Wichman continued.

The forces pressing them to do so have been building since at least the late 1970s when controversy began brewing over the burning of what was then the prairie’s biggest crop: turfgrass.

“According to a report by the University of Idaho,” read a Spokane Daily Chronicle story published on July 6, 1979, “the Inland Empire produces nearly two-thirds of the turfgrass seed needed in the United States.”

But for that crop to be profitable, farmers argued, the grass had to be burned “to shock the grass plants to provide for next year’s crop without the cost of re-seeding,” the Chronicle reported.

While the smoke produced was the subject of environmental concerns, Art Manley, a Democratic state senator from Coeur d’Alene, said the practice also had an environmental benefit.

“Growing grass keeps the prairie from growing houses,” Manley said.

Pressure from a series of lawsuits combined with gathering development demand led grass growers to begin phasing out the practice while courts hashed out the legality of the practice in the early 2000s.

By 2004, only 15 of the prairie’s original 100 square miles were still considered open space.

Hoping to save it, Wichman, then Kootenai County’s planning director, joined with other planners to prevent the rest from disappearing.

At the time, Wichman told The Spokesman-Review it was “our last chance” to prevent that from happening.

Seventeen years later, Wichman looks back on the Rathdrum Prairie Open Space Project, as that initiative was known, with a mixture of frustration and resignation.

“It was just an issue of, we could see that the cities were growing toward each other, primarily Hayden, Rathdrum and Post Falls,” Wichman said. “And if we didn’t plan for it, they were going to meet at some undesignated spot out there in the prairie and there would be nothing left of the prairie. There were a number of us that got together and thought, ‘Shouldn’t we be a little bit more deliberate about this?’”

The result, though, was a resolution, signed by a number of elected officials, touting a litany of “Shared Principles and Common Goals for the Rathdrum Prairie.” But while that document claimed “a coordinated Prairie planning effort can be attained by cooperation,” no such planning effort came to fruition.

“This can all happen at the staff level. You can have all these conversations,” Wichman said. “But if you don’t have the elected officials that make the decision and decide how the money is spent, if you don’t have them on board and strongly supportive of it, you have lots of meetings and nothing gets accomplished. And I think that’s unfortunately the end result of what happened back then.

Despite the practical failure of that earlier effort, Wichman is giving the effort to preserve part of the prairie another last chance.

‘What should happen’

Wichman recently came together with a number of planners, administrators and elected officials from jurisdictions and agencies throughout the county to form the Regional Housing and Growth Issues Partnership.

The group aims to study growth management, housing and transportation issues and to put “forward solutions and a framework for implementation,” according to the partnership’s website.

Since their survey identified “collaboration on preservation of open space” as respondents’ top priority, members of the partnership have been drafting a “white paper” that looks at the history of the prairie and its current state, with the aim of providing “a framework for any private organization or group that wants to take further action on this topic.”

Wichman said he supports the effort, while noting its limitations.

“It’s one step farther than we got back in the early 2000s, because they’ll at least have a white paper at the end of this to monument their journey,” he said. “At least with a white paper, if nothing happens, somebody can pick that up in two or three years and if it hasn’t gone anywhere, they can at least pick up where that left off and make another run at it.

“But ultimately, the white paper doesn’t do anything except document where we’ve been,” Wichman continued. “And at the end of the day, the cities and the counties need to agree on a collective vision on what’s going to happen out there, what should happen.”

‘Political will’

David Callahan has seen it happen before.

Citizens saw the threat development posed to agriculture and recreation, pressed their public officials to act, and reaped the rewards in the form of over 100,000 acres of open space.

But that was in a very different time and place: Boulder County, Colorado, beginning in the mid-1960s, when the county commission formed a citizens group to draw up a plan for preserving open space.

It took almost 30 years and three tries, Callahan notes, but in 1993, Boulder County adopted a sales tax to accelerate open space purchases that have amassed over 150 square miles of land.

Callahan spent 12 years in that county’s planning department before taking over as Kootenai County’s community development director in 2013.

And in March, Callahan and his staff drew on the Boulder County example and a number of other growth-management models to create a white paper of their own, which offered a menu of growth-management options for county commissioners to consider.

Among the strategies available, according to the white paper, were:

  • Overlay zones, which “impose a set of standards on a specified geographic area in order to achieve a desired local outcome.”
  • Conservation/cluster designs, which “preserve natural land while encouraging compact development.”
  • Transfer of development rights, which allow “property owners in ‘sending’ areas, areas designated for less development, to sell their development rights to ‘receiving’ areas, areas designated for denser development.”
  • Urban growth area, such as exist in Washington, which designate “an area where urban growth is encouraged and outside of which growth can occur only if it is not urban in nature.”
  • Open space programs, which allow for the implementation of “a local tax that is then used for the purchase (at fair market value) of land that is environmentally sensitive or important for agricultural production or other reasons.”

Callahan said the document was “well-received,” but added, “I don’t know of any effect it has had.”

Kootenai County commissioners have yet to pursue any of the strategies Callahan’s white paper outlined, and there’s no sign they will.

Commissioner Chris Fillios, a Republican, called the document “thought-provoking” and said, “Any potentially worthwhile cause is worth exploring.”

As for whether he’s pursuing any growth-management strategies, though, Fillios said he’s not.

“I think there’s just too much on our plate right now,” Fillios said. “And there are too many issues confronting us.”

Fillios noted it’s not clear if it’s something his constituents even want him to do: “The question is, is there the popular will to do that?”

Callahan said a lack of citizen pressure and the resulting political inaction has left him “demoralized” and “flummoxed.”

“Unless and until we get a population that wants something to happen, I don’t think we’ll have the political will to do anything,” Callahan said. “So to me, it fundamentally has to start with the people. I believe good land-use planning has to come from the people or it just doesn’t come.”

‘A conservative haven’

Callahan said he knows of only one “group that’s out there and concerned and doing things”: a Facebook group called Responsible North Idaho Growth.

Since starting Responsible North Idaho Growth in January, Ed DePriest has seen it grow to about 2,700 members who keep tabs on, and opine about, the rapid pace of development and how to slow it.

A retired school teacher who moved to the area from Los Angeles 27 years ago, DePriest coaches football and “spends a whole heck of a lot of time” at planning meetings in Hayden, where he lives.

His aims, he said, are to slow the pace of growth, reduce density, find a way “to preserve large parcels of the prairie” and “keep this area as best we can from (becoming) just another high-density, wall-to-wall, metropolitan-type area.”

Members of the group have floated a wide variety of ideas about how those aims might be accomplished and why officials haven’t implemented those approaches. Some of them have drawn pushback from local officials who argue they are impractical, off-base or illegal. The group also put forward initiatives in Rathdrum and Post Falls designed to limit growth, but both were rejected, as the Coeur d’Alene Press reported.

Short of such changes, dePriest said he wants cities to use the tools they have to decrease density through zoning and to slow their expansion by passing up opportunities to annex.

DePriest, a self-described Reagan Republican and fiscal conservative, said the kind of solution that worked in Boulder County won’t fly.

“I would get behind anything as far as saving space that for the most part didn’t put the significant burden on the taxpayers, because they’re not likely to vote for it when it comes up,” he said.

The source of that reluctance to pay for a solution, dePreist said, is also the source of the problems of such rapid growth.

“What’s driving a lot of (the growth) right now is politics,” he said. “People are escaping California because of the tax situation and a lot of other issues. And you see a large contingency of conservatives to extremist conservatives coming up here.”

Kootenai County, DePriest said, is “where people are fleeing to. It has the reputation for being, for lack of a better term, a conservative haven right now.”

While they don’t point explicitly to political flight as the cause, elected officials in the county agree that money is the most obvious mechanism for saving open space, as well as being a tool they are unlikely to use.

Fillios, the county commissioner, said the county buying land at market value in order to preserve it is potentially “a good concept” and “might be welcomed.”

“The question is how to get there,” he said. “That’s the challenge. There are ways to raise the money. The question is, is there the popular will to do that? And Kootenai County is different from Boulder.”

Jacobson said the loss of open space is largely a money issue.

“Cities could buy (remaining agricultural land) and use it as open space,” he said. “But I don’t see that endless supply of money. That’s the challenge.”

And it’s a challenge that gets more insurmountable by the day, as more land is developed and prices keep climbing.

County Commissioner Leslie Duncan said she too is “definitely for preserving open space or even getting open space for public use, like a big park.”

As for how to make that happen, she said, “Donations of course would be great. If an owner wanted to donate the land, that would be the best option. As far as the county raising money, big community support would have to get behind it and let us know that they want their tax dollars spent on securing property.”

‘Benefit the community’

Without a coordinated growth management plan, individual officials, politicians and landowners have been left to act on their own.

Hill recently joined with another councilmember to defeat an annexation request that would have allowed for the development of a new 66-home subdivision called Lakeland Landings.

He argues that his city, for one, already has too much development “in the pipeline,” and that denying such requests are one of the few tools he has to prevent more projects from moving forward.

Once land has been annexed, Hill noted, cities can’t stop them from being developed.

“The city doesn’t have the right to say, ‘You’re following the rules, your project is in compliance with all of our laws, but you can’t develop it,’” Hill said of property within city limits. “So the only way to stop growth is to stop annexations.”

But for that strategy to work, Hill acknowledges local “government bodies need to work together” to come up with a more lasting solution.

In the meantime, owners of the little land remaining in the shared tier are left with a difficult choice: hang on to a disappearing way of life, cash out to the highest bidder or seek some middle path without a formal program to help them do so.

Wade Jacklin is a member of the family that formed the Jacklin Seed Co., once a major grass-growing and processing business, and then the Jacklin Land Co., the development company where Wichman works. He’s also the co-owner of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Jacklin Real Estate.

While he said the real estate firm is “autonomous” of the land company, it has handled the sale of some of the Jacklin Land Co.’s former agricultural land, including 147 acres located in a prime location at the intersection of the expanding state Highway 41 and Hayden Road.

The land “has been in the Jacklin family for a long, long time,” Jacklin said. “It was farmland and still is to a certain degree, just not profitable.”

It will turn a hefty profit soon.

Jacklin put the land up for sale in two parcels last month at a price of $135,000 an acre, or nearly $20 million total.

While the land has not been annexed, Jacklin expects it will be.

“It has potential really of going either to Rathdrum or Post Falls, kind of depending on political climate to a certain degree, developer desires, things like that,” Jacklin said.

Once it is, he said the parcels could become a mix of high-density housing, single-family homes and commercial development.

Jacklin said he hopes the project will “create a nice legacy for generations to come.”

“I think when developing a larger parcel like this one, it would probably benefit from including open-space trails, parks, as far as making it a more desirable community for builders to build in and people to move in,” Jacklin said. “But as far as leaving large parcels essentially fallow, I don’t think that really makes sense for a private landowner, unless that’s what they wanted to do with it. And that’s completely up to them in my mind.”

Walt Meyer isn’t leaving his land fallow, but he’s also not ready to see it developed.

He and his family own some 1,600 acres mostly north and west of the Coeur d’Alene Airport that they still farm.

Some of that land has been annexed into Hayden, some into Rathdrum and some remains in the shared tier, he said.

While Meyer has “backed way off” of the day-to-day operations of the farm, his nephews have taken over.

“As long as they can make a living,” Meyer said, “they’re good with what’s going on. But there are some added challenges.”

Those challenges include traffic that makes moving farm implements difficult, garbage that blows in from all the surrounding development and people who drive on what they apparently believe to be unused land, Meyer said.

Meyer’s “big concern,” he said, is that it soon won’t be cost-effective to farm the land at all. And that has him thinking about what comes next, though without much guidance.

“I feel that we have been given an opportunity to maybe kind of direct what happens to a certain degree with the property,” Meyer said. “And I’m hoping to have a say in the way it’s developed and the way things happen. … I realize it’s not going to be a farm forever. I just don’t want to see houses everywhere, and I don’t want to see apartment buildings. I want to see some things that are good for the community.”

He said he’s considered trying to turn it into a soccer complex. Though he’s far from making a decision, the idea of creating a sports complex, park or “recreation district” has come up during meetings of the Regional Housing and Growth Issues Partnership.

“I’m just going to try to leave myself open to listen,” Meyer said. “I like things that make sense. I like things that are going to benefit the community.”

‘Heritage’

About twice a week, Laurin Scarcello’s flip phone rings.

On the other end is a Realtor or an investor trying whatever tactics they can to buy his land.

Drive out to Scarcello’s property, just off booming Highway 41, north of Rathdrum, and it’s easy to see why the spread is so attractive to potential developers.

While it’s not in the shared tier, it’s 650 acres of mostly hayfields, making it among the largest pieces of undeveloped land left in the area.

For another, the land remains much as it was in 1907, when Scarcello’s family purchased its first piece of the property along the road that now bears the family’s name.

The only current occupants of all that space are Scarcello, a few relatives and about 80 head of black Angus cattle. But the development potential of his land is hard to fathom –as is its value.

Despite the promise of all the “stupid money” developers keep offering him, Scarcello swears he’ll never sell, even though he works a day job as a welder and operates his ranch the rest of the time, some years at a loss. He also serves on a number of local boards, including the county’s Aquifer Protection Board.

“It comes down to, my heritage is not for sale,” he said.

Though he vows he’ll never buckle and says his five children agree they won’t either, Scarcello also believes the few remaining farmers like him should be compensated for preserving the final pieces of the prairie.

His proposal is simple: an existing aquifer protection fee paid on property that’s above or adjacent to the Rathdrum Aquifer should be expanded and applied countywide. That annual fee, collected with property taxes, can range from $5.50 to $12.50 per parcel but has never been more than $8, according to a recent Coeur d’Alene Press editorial by a member of the Kootenai County Aquifer Protection District.

Large landowners would then apply to receive funding from that pool of money that would help keep their noses above water and reduce their incentive to sell.

“I’m the last guy that wants more taxes,” Scarcello said of the fee. “But I think people need to pay for the services they’re getting. And we provide services.”

Those services, he said, include preserving the views and watershed on the prairie, protecting the aquifer and storing carbon at a time when changing weather patterns are adding to the financial pressure on farmers like him.

Without action, Scarcello said the prairie’s future is bleak.

As Post Falls and Rathdrum have grown, they have also each acquired sizable pieces of land, about 11/2 square miles total, where they plan to disperse treated wastewater when they exceed the amount they can put in the Spokane River. That land is currently being farmed and will likely remain open, but it won’t be the open space Scarcello can get excited about.

“I’m afraid we’re heading toward the only open space is going to be airport and the wastewater sites,” he said.

After years of inaction, he said the clock is ticking.

“This is very time-sensitive. If we goof around five years, what’s the point?” Scarcello said. “We will be here. It’ll be harder to be here.”

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