Back to the roots

BOISE, Idaho — Milan Gould has been farming in the Middleton, Idaho, area, not far from the state capital of Boise, since 1959.

This year, rows of corn stretch from his property across 80 acres of the subdivision, which was once approved for about 200 homes and a park.

A lender ended up with the subdivision after developer Corinthian Homes defaulted on its loans, said Star, Idaho, Mayor Nate Mitchell.

Gould leases the land from the lender.

"It keeps the weeds down. It keeps the land in production. It gives them a tax break," Gould said. "It benefits all of us and keeps us in business."

During the boom years that drove up land and home prices, demand for new homes seemed endless. From about 2005 to 2007, many farmers sold out for cash, or committed portions of their land to developers. Plans for subdivisions that would gobble up farmland covered Idaho's Treasure Valley.

But when the housing bubble burst in 2008, home buyers and construction loans faded. Deals fell apart. Developers and speculators found they had purchased too much property at inflated prices. As values dropped, many had more money invested than they could recoup by selling.

"After the shakeout, many of those properties (were short sales) or went to banks that have sold or are trying to sell them," said John Starr, a land broker with Colliers International in Boise.

Other scenarios played out, as well, especially after farm income and prices for commodities such as corn and wheat rose, said Idaho state Rep. Pat Takasugi, a farmer in Wilder, Idaho, who was once Idaho's agriculture director.

Farmers continued to work the acreages they owned in fizzled subdivisions, he said. They also sought out owners of other parcels, whether investors or banks, to buy or lease land to plant crops.

Investors who lease to farmers benefit from advantageous tax treatment.

"Local farmers have done a good job of pressing developers, banks and owners to keep land operational," Starr said. "If you find land sitting idle, it's because they just haven't found the right people to talk to or the owner said no." Or because the developer built roads, sidewalks and utilities that make farming the land impossible.

Gould said he'd like to buy, but he chooses to lease land near his properties in Middleton because the investors sank too much money into them for development and need to make it back on the sale.

"I couldn't afford it," he said.

But other properties in Canyon County, west of Boise, are selling, Starr said.

The Symms family, owners of the 97-year-old Symms Fruit Ranch, purchased the proposed 148-acre Tuscany Hills subdivision in Canyon County to extend their farmland.

No one has tallied the number of re-farmed acres across the valley. But anecdotally, about 1,000 acres between Star and Middleton, and more than 3,500 in the nearby Kuna, Idaho, area, fit the description.

In the past 12 months, farmers bought 440 acres of mostly Canyon County property that was part of the DBSI debacle.

DBSI, a local company, managed commercial property for investors around the country but collapsed as real estate values fell and lending dried up. It filed for bankruptcy in 2008.

More DBSI land is coming on the market.

"They are properties that are most appropriately farmland," Starr said. "It missed the opportunity to change from farmland to something else." Local planning officials say many conditional-use permits or rezonings are expiring — permits that made commercial or residential development on agricultural land possible.

With the economy's anemic recovery, it's likely that much of that land will remain undeveloped "for 20 or more years now," said Bill Blackburn, a broker at Middleton Realty.

"It's changed the landscape for sure," Takasugi said.

Of course, there are still a lot of prepared parcels for new homes and businesses, say local officials and real estate professionals.

In June, 42,070 buildable lots existed in the Treasure Valley, down from 87,952 in June 2010, Starr said.

The critical factor is the absorption rate — the rate at which land is turned into new homes or businesses — which differs from county to county, he said. Ada County, which contains Boise, will see fewer proposed subdivisions returned to farmland because demand is stronger there.

"Because of the continued demand for new homes in Ada County, most of the failed subdivisions are waiting to or have found a way to move forward," Starr said. "In Canyon County, it's a whole different story."

Canyon County historically has had lower absorption. What's more, it was hit harder with job losses and foreclosures than the rest of Idaho.

So it's going to take longer for demand to clear out available lots, making refarming more likely.

Many prime farm parcels have had their irrigation ripped out and have been broken up with streets, sidewalks and utilities. To convert such land back to agriculture would be too costly, many say. It can't be farmed anymore.

Take the 235-acre Meadow Park off of Purple Sage Road east of Cemetery Road near Middleton. Streets and utilities cut through weedy fields, along with the remnants of vinyl fencing. Initially platted in 2005, the subdivision with three sections — the Crossing, the Pines and the Estates — sits waiting for the day when demand or pricing make it attractive to investors or developers.

"There's a lot of room to build, and nobody's building, and the economy's not helping," Takasugi said. "I don't know if we'll ever see it like it was before." The breather from development at a frenzied pitch has led to better planning and smarter growth, and perhaps the chance to correct some of the mistakes that were made, he said.

"They're not dropping subdivisions in the middle of farmland," Takasugi said of the new crop of planners. "They're developing closer to infrastructure (city services like sewer and water). Maybe we've finally got a little common sense."

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