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Dry Creek, Dry Purse

"I don't see where I'm going to support spending county taxpayer dollars on an organization that doesn't support the county."

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Updated Post Wednesday, Aug. 2, 11:15 a.m.:
After a half-hour conversation Aug. 1, the path was paved for the Ada County Commission to fully fund the Ada Soil and Water Conservation District.

"They look forward to working with us, and we look forward to working with them," said ASWCD Board President Glen Edwards.

The conservation district landed in hot water with the Ada County Commission when Josie Erskine, a farmer and ASWCD district manager, voiced her personal concerns about a development in Dry Creek (which was ultimately approved by the commission) during a public meeting. In a later meeting, Ada County Commissioner Jim Tibbs took umbrage at her comments, which he presumed reflected the official position of ASWCD.

"They disagreed with us and they beat us up pretty bad, and quite frankly, I don't see where I'm going to support spending taxpayer dollars on an organization that doesn't support the county," he said.

County funding for the conservation district was withheld until Aug. 1, when the county commissioners and ASWCD board of directors met to clear the air. Edwards said the meeting was a chance for the district to explain in person to the commissioners that it has no official position on the Dry Creek Ranch project.

"There were some misunderstandings and conversations about that one commission meeting, and we got those misunderstandings straightened out," Edwards said.

The district will receive $45,000 from the county, as it has in years past, and those funds will be matched with $50,000 from the State of Idaho.

Original Post Wednesday, July 26, 4 a.m.:

Josie Erskine stood before the Ada County Board of Commissioners in February to voice her disapproval of new development plans in the Dry Creek Valley northwest of Boise, where she operates Peaceful Belly Farm.

"This is the [location of the] very first farm in Ada County," she said. "As a culture, do we get rid of any 'firsts'? I'm opposed to this development."

Before she stepped away from the podium, county commissioners wanted to know who she was speaking for: herself as a citizen and farmer, or the Ada Soil and Water Conservation District, which she serves as district manager.

"I'm representing myself," she said.

Regardless, personal opposition to Dry Creek Valley development by Erskine and others associated with the ASWCD has had political—and financial—ramifications. As a result of negative testimony on the issue, Ada County commissioners declined to fund ASWCD as they had in years past, pending a meeting between representatives of the district and commissioners, slated for Tuesday, Aug. 1.

"They disagreed with us and they beat us up pretty bad, and quite frankly, I don't see where I'm going to support spending county taxpayer dollars on an organization that doesn't support the county," said Commissioner Jim Tibbs during a June 19 budget hearing.

The loss of county funds could have dire consequences. The district has received money every year from Ada County since its inception. The amount has been substantial in the past six years, totaling $45,000 annually from Ada County and $50,000 from the state of Idaho through a matching funds mechanism. Axing the county's portion would be virtually doubled by the loss of state dollars—a critical blow to the district, which in Fiscal Year 2016 had total funding of $136,530.

ASWCD partners with landowners and public entities on open spaces and agriculture conservation projects ranging from easements to no-till farming education. It's a shoestring but active operation with two employees and a board of supervisors. Erskine said it would be up to the board to determine if funding cuts would affect her staff, but confirmed a result would be a reduction in the ability of the district to do its job.

"We don't want to cut any of our programs we have going, but there's just a lot that we all know can be done," she said. "Nobody knows the district, nobody knows what the district does, but we're out there."

Agriculture is being edged off the map in Ada County and the funding conflict comes at a pivotal moment. In 1939, farming operations consumed 17 percent of Ada County; by 2014, that number had dropped to less than 8 percent. A U.S. Department of Agriculture census in 2002 showed 1,420 farms in Ada County. By 2012, it had lost 200 farms. Those decreases have corresponded to the growth of Boise and its suburbs. The U.S. Census Bureau reported the county had 206,000 residents in 1990 and the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho projects it will have 675,000 residents by 2040, with 60,000 people living in unincorporated areas.

The Dry Creek Valley is a point of particular tension. The Hidden Springs community has cropped up in the east end of the valley, but its western end still has some of the deepest topsoil in southwestern Idaho—6 feet in some areas—and several independent agricultural operations, including Fiddler's Green Farm and Peaceful Belly Farm. Those operations are about to have a new neighbor: Dry Creek Ranch, a project of Boise Hunter Homes, which will bring 1,800 homes and 85,000 feet of commercial space. The plan was approved Feb. 21 by the Ada County commission, and is scaled back from a version approved in 2010 that included 3,500 homes.

The Dry Creek Ranch project has drawn a lot of critics, including the Boise Farmers Market, the Boise Co-op, neighborhood associations, open spaces advocates and historians, and farmers who work in the Dry Creek Valley. Among them is Peaceful Belly farmhand and founder of advocacy group Save Dry Creek, Stephanie Rael, who said even though it has been reduced in scope, development is a foot in the door for more construction.

"Once you start building houses out there, it's easy to build more," she said.

Save Dry Creek, founded in March, has sought to halt the development of Dry Creek Ranch. The group has initiated a petition to put a referendum on the 2018 ballot that, if passed, would void an ordinance passed by the Ada County commission enabling the development of Dry Creek Ranch. When Ada County Clerk Christopher Rich blocked its petition, Save Dry Creek filed suit.

Talks between commissioners and the ASWCD over funding are ongoing. In a letter to the commission dated May 26, Erskine apologized for any confusion and clarified the agency has no official stance on Dry Creek Ranch.

"[ASWCD Board Chairman Glen] Edwards has asked me to reach out and assure all of you the views and opinions expressed in my testimony are my own, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the ADA SWCD," she wrote.

In a statement released by the commission, "the amount normally budgeted" for the district has been set aside "in the event that we can come to a mutual agreement," citing a "philosophical difference" as the source of friction between commissioners and the district. The two groups are set for a meeting in August to determine if and how the money will be allocated.

When Tibbs was asked if he would like to clarify his comments on funding the district, he wrote, "I made that statement based on information I was given at the time. The [Board of County Commissioners] is meeting with ASWCD next month and I look forward to getting clarification and a better understanding [based] on the information I was given."


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