Backlash over the boom in newcomers to Kootenai County is reaching a “tipping point”

click to enlarge Backlash over the boom in newcomers to Kootenai County is reaching a "tipping point"

Erick Doxey photo

Downtown Coeur d’Alene condominiums under construction in 2020.

With an entirely straight face, Justin O’Connell tells the Coeur d’Alene City Council that the region should adopt a “Make Idaho California Plan.”

O’Connell, who is young, well-dressed and sporting a bushy mustache, goes on to argue for bike-only roads, a ban on gas stoves and the construction of massive high rises that would fit the entire population of Coeur d’Alene into a few square blocks. The plan, he says, would help align the region with the sustainable development goals outlined in the United Nations and World Economic Forum’s 2030 Agenda.

To be clear: O’Connell is doing a bit.

In other speeches to the council, he’s called for a ban on single-family homes and argued that the city should be partnering with more out-of-state developers from places like Seattle, Portland and California. Some people seem to be in on the joke, but his speeches are just subtle enough to make you think he might be serious.

“It’s sad that life in North Idaho has changed so much that the ridiculous now seems possible,” one commenter said of O’Connell in a local Facebook group dedicated to responsible growth.

Like all good satire, O’Connell’s speeches reflect very real contemporary anxieties. He’s playing a boogeyman — a caricature of the planning and development ideas that he sees as bad for the region.

The vision of the future he outlines is, to many Idahoans, a nightmare scenario.

THE SLEEPING GIANT

Idaho is the fastest-growing state in the nation. Many of the new arrivals are retirees or people with high-paying jobs that can be done remotely on a computer. They’re drawn by the natural beauty, rural character and, in some cases, conservative politics and an anti-government sentiment. Many view Idaho as a refuge free of taxes and oppressive liberal governance — a “last bastion of freedom,” says Kootenai County Commissioner Chris Fillios.

Kootenai County is the third-largest and third-fastest growing county in the state. The median home price in Kootenai County doubled over the course of four years and now stands at more than a half-million dollars. Three-quarters of county residents could afford to buy a home in 2016; only a quarter of residents can today. The situation is even worse for renters, who are on average paying 51 percent of their income toward rent.

The impact goes beyond home values. A lack of affordable housing is driving away workers and leading to a labor shortage. The roads are too small to support the growing population, and what used to be a 10-minute drive now takes 20. The once-rural region is getting crowded — fast.

Kootenai County Community Development Director David Callahan says the community used to be mostly OK with growth; it’s only over the last few years that things took a turn in the opposite direction.

“From where I sit, our community has reached a tipping point,” Callahan says. “More people are regularly concerned about growth and regularly pushing back about it.”

The Inlander asks Callahan what happens when the region passes the tipping point.

“Well,” Callahan says after a pause, “the sleeping giant can awaken. It can thrash and turn everything upside down.”

CALIFORNICATION

O’Connell moved to Idaho in 2020. He used to live in Encinitas, California, and moved because he was unhappy with the way the city was changing. O’Connell, who leans libertarian and does work involving bitcoin marketing, is happy in North Idaho, but he worries that the rural character that drew him to the state is being threatened by the same urban planning philosophies that prompted him to leave California. He’s not against growth per se — “I am the growth,” he says — but he is concerned about the way the region’s approach to planning for it.

In February, the Coeur d’Alene City Council approved a 2022-2042 comprehensive plan called “Envision Coeur d’Alene.” The plan outlines some broad goals relating to mixed-use development, sustainability and affordable housing.

A February Planning Commission hearing to finalize the plan was packed with public commenters, many of them angry. Four members of the Panhandle Patriots Riding Club, a far-right motorcycle group, also attended. One accused the Planning Commission of “pimping our state out.”

Many people who testified at the meeting brought up fears of the region resembling California. The state is the source of many recent arrivals and plays an outsized role in local growth discourse. But the Californians coming to Idaho aren’t generally liberals hoping to turn the state blue — they’re often fleeing California. The new arrivals are often staunchly opposed to growth, Fillios says.

“We talk to people who have only been here a few years, and they want to shut the door,” Fillios says. “I’m saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, you’re part of the problem, and now you want to shut the door?'”

Fillios is concerned about how much of the region’s growth is being driven by the far right of the political spectrum. He’s a Republican and one of a number of incumbents who were defeated by challengers from the right in the May primary election. His opponent, Bruce Mattare, moved to Idaho in 2013 after leaving Virginia. At an April forum hosted by Kootenai County Republican Women Federated, Mattare described Virginia as a “once great conservative state.”

“I know some of you thought it was gonna be California,” he added, prompting laughs from the crowd.

Asked by an attendee about growth, Mattare said the community should have a right to define the future of where they live.

“When someone tells you, ‘What about the million people who want to move here?’ — I don’t care; I care about the people that are here,” Mattare said.

ATTRACTIVE DENSITY

Mattare tells the Inlander that he isn’t necessarily anti-growth. He just wants it to slow down. He wants to see less density. Mattare says he’s lived in areas that were changed for the worse by the addition of apartments, which he equates with crime. He says the first generation of renters are usually fine, but “by the fifth generation of lessees you’re gonna see a degradation in the overall quality of life — you get a lot more calls for service.”

Mattare also worries about the environmental impact of density and thinks there aren’t enough impact studies being done. He says he’d like to see the county use impact fees, a comprehensive plan that de-emphasizes density and the creation of parkland in remaining open spaces to help slow the growth.

Coeur d’Alene City Councilman Dan Gookin has a slightly different view of density.

“You can go with density, or you can go with really expensive homes,” Gookin says. “You’ve gotta pick one. There’s no middle ground.”

Gookin says he’d like to see more density — as long as it’s attractive. He regularly drives by a complex that has three stories of apartments on top of businesses. It would be nice, Gookin says, but it’s all paved concrete.

“It just comes across as ugly, I think that’s what people are upset about,” Gookin says.

Gookin would like to see more apartments with green space and trees. He also thinks the density needs to be affordable.

That last part is tricky. Plans were recently approved for a 18-story condominium that will be among the tallest buildings in Coeur d’Alene when completed. It’s not the type of density Gookin thinks the city needs. “It’s a high-rise condo tower going in downtown built specifically for rich people who don’t live here,” Gookin says.

A one-bedroom unit starts at $750,000. ♦

Article Source: Inlander