Amidst thousands of homes that make up the West Bench neighborhood, Spaulding Ranch is the last farm. Situated on 20 unblemished acres, the original, well-maintained, century-old farmhouse, barn and outbuildings are all that’s left of the 80 acres that the Spaulding family originally settled in 1896. Almon Spaulding worked the land as a productive farm while his wife, Mary, worked as one of Boise’s first female physicians.
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But over the last century, developers chopped up farmland on the West Bench and sold it to homeowners eager to live on larger lots and in bigger houses than their North End counterparts. Slowly, the Spaulding Ranch was subdivided, and found itself hemmed in by new neighborhoods, winding streets, cul-de-sacs and two car garages. Now, at the edge of the property line, tall fences separate unused pasture from the manicured lawns of one- and two-story homes.
On one end of the property, a yard dotted with shade trees holds assorted structures once used on the productive farm. Nearby stands an idyllic red barn, once stocked with hay and the Spaulding family home, built in 1905. A stone fence invites visitors into the shaded front yard before the picturesque two-story house. One can almost imagine a rising curl of smoke from the red brick chimney.
“Where else in greater suburban Boise can you find a 20-acre pasture surrounded as it is by housing?” asked Dan Everhart of Preservation Idaho, an organization keen to protect what’s left of the ranch. “But you can look at it and immediately you can see what it might have looked like here, even 30 years ago, 40 years ago certainly. And by the time you get back 50 years ago this was mostly undeveloped.”
But developers could bulldoze one of the few surviving testaments of early Americana, paving over Spaulding Ranch to create rows of humdrum homes in a neighborhood already lacking any sign of its heritage.
Too often small pockets of metropolitan farmland have been dismissed as barren places ready for suburban development. Between 2002 and 2007, according to the United States Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture, the housing boom consumed 14 percent of Ada County’s farmland, while Canyon County lost 4 percent. Yet fertile land with ditch irrigation is a vanishing nonrenewable resource.
“Agriculture is our heritage,” said Idaho’s Urban Land Institute, reporting in 2012. “It is a lifestyle choice, and a way to build community. Small and large-scale commercial agriculture is an important economic engine that generates jobs and livelihoods.”
Outside of Boise, farmers still make a living on agriculture. Janie Burns owns and operates Meadowlark Farms, raising livestock and crops on a farm in Nampa. Burns’ land supplies farmers markets and families. Fifty years ago, and 50 years before that, farms like hers were common on the bench south of the city. Burns said qualities like access to water and other resources attract farmers and developers to a piece of property. But over time as farms are squeezed out by residential communities, agriculture, as a practice, will wither on the vine.
“For example let’s say a farmer used to be surrounded by farms, and now they’re surrounded by houses. So you don’t have anyone who can help you, and farming—there’s a lot of independence and there’s also a lot of dependence, including on your neighbors for their skills, and maybe their manpower during parts of the year,” said Burns.
Jaap Vos, Director and Associate Professor of Community and Regional Planning at Boise State University, spoke about the phenomenon using different terms. Voss centered in on the values established by a community.
“I always tell people I was born right next to a cheese factory. I can tell you, it stunk. But I never complained about it, because it was part of growing up in a rural area,” he said.
Those values can be upended by rapid growth, as new communities move into once rural areas and fill them up with different priorities.
“Everybody who lived in town was related to agricultural activities. Nobody really cared until there was a new suburban development from people who came from another part of the country, who didn’t share in the community,” said Vos, who grew up in The Netherlands. “It was basically because they came from a very different background, didn’t understand the values, and didn’t understand what was going on in these other communities.”
Burns said it’s hard for a community to realize the impact of dwindling farmlands, in part because food still shows up on grocery store shelves.
“It’s so insidious, the loss of a farm going out of business, and a subdivision going in,” said Burns. “It takes time and it’s not a jolt to the system, it’s just a slow leaking wound. It’s a death by a thousand cuts.”
“THIS IS CALLED URBAN SPRAWL”
Not long after Harvey and Katherine Caron purchased the property from the Spauldings in the 1940s, the city annexed the growing area.
“In the mid ’60s—I think at the objection of a lot of people who were already living up here—the city annexed at least this part of the Bench, encouraging further development,” said Everhart. “Because as soon as you have annexation the city’s responsible for all the infrastructure, like sewer.”
Everhart called it a “classic” tale, one that’s not unique to Boise.
“This is called urban sprawl. And it’s actually much less urban sprawl now because we’re much closer here to the urban core than they are in Kuna, so it’s hard to call it sprawl. But in reality that’s what it is. And it’s all triggered by the post-war proliferation of the personal automobile, and the ability for someone to leave their job in the city and drive 10 minutes and be somewhere where they can have a single family,” he said.
Boise historian J.M. Neill, in his manuscript “City Limits,” wrote that even in the 1950s, officials recognized the problem posed by the growing, amorphous boundaries of the Boise metropolitan area. Its people, however, seemed reticent to do anything to slow the march of “progress.”
“Boiseans have long since accepted the apparent inevitability of westward metropolitan growth, placing the city at the eastern edge of an increasingly extended urban area now stretching over thirty miles to Caldwell and beyond,” wrote Neill.
It’s a trend which began in the city’s early years, first with the North and West end neighborhoods settled by wealthy businessmen and blue collar workers alike, just short streetcar rides away from downtown Boise. After World War II, the growing economy, rising population and cheap gas made new developments farther from the urban core a reality for many Boise families. Located just miles from downtown, the West Bench area, then just outside the city boundary, experienced the early stages of encroaching urban development.
Now the farmland that surrounds Spaulding Ranch has been subdivided into a patchwork of neighborhoods, built in small phases by dozens of different developers. One road, with the manufactured name of N. Sawgrass Way, dead-ends in a cul-de-sac west of Spaulding Ranch, bisected by numerous other dreamed up roads-to-nowhere, like Silkwood Circle and Innsbrook Court. Cars from hundreds of homes feed the main North-South route, Cole Road, with 2011 average traffic volumes topping 20,000 cars per day, according to Ada County Highway District (pdf).
Planners wrote in Blueprint Boise, the city’s comprehensive plan, that the West Bench neighborhood encompasses more than 9,000 acres. Single-family residential uses occupy 53 percent of that area; nearly 3 million square feet of new non-residential building area was added in the West Bench since 2000, more than any other planning area. As of 2010 residents of the West Bench made up 29.4 percent of Boise’s total population at 69,975. By 2025, that’s expected to balloon to 82,618.
Though located only miles from downtown, the average commute time for a West Bench worker in 2000 was 19 minutes, time often spent at a crawl along the tree-less Chinden Boulevard or by the strip mall-laden, no longer accurately named Fairview Avenue.There is still a decent view to the north and up.
“The West Bench has seen some of the most intense growth since 2000 of any planning area, with over 21 percent of all new residential units and just under 25 percent of non-residential construction citywide,” wrote city planners in Blueprint Boise.
In the early 1990s, Spaulding resident Katherine Caron, fearful of an Ada County Highway District plan to drive increased traffic loads through her property successfully listed the farmstead and its pasture in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1996, the City of Boise approved Caron’s proposal to designate the land as a historic district, the seventh such district in the city, much like Hyde Park and Old Boise.
In 2005, the Carons asked the city to remove the historic designation and allow them to sell and develop the lot. However the city denied the request, in part because little had changed since the Carons’ original request to designate the property. In 2006, the property was purchased—still designated a historic district—and late last year, owner Northside Management expressed interest in building homes on 15 acres, leaving five acres and the original buildings intact. In order to do that, they’d have to ask the city’s Historic Preservation Commission to lift the designation.“Site layout and architecture are envisioned to be period-based.” Scott Noriyuki, Northside Management via Idaho Statesman.
“They understand the complexity of what they’re requesting,” said Everhart.
Northside would be forced to ask the Historic Preservation Commission to not only remove the historic district designation, but also for permits to move forward with development. At a Feb. 6 meeting of the West Bench Neighborhood Association, Everhart said Preservation Idaho planned to oppose any request to alter Spaulding Ranch’s historic designation.
“We’re not going in with a plan to cut Solomon’s baby in half,” Everhart told attendees.
If the residents who live near Spaulding Ranch want to join in helping to save the last farm, he told the association, neighbors will have to do so with a grassroots effort. That means turning out to a public meeting of the Commission should Northside request apply for redesignation.
“Our most important topic tonight is Spaulding Ranch,” West Bench Neighborhood Association president Betty Brigante told nearly a dozen residents during the night of Everhart’s presentation. “Because we may need to take action.”
But not all members agreed about the fate of the farm.
“It’s their land,” said one attendee. “We live in a capitalist society. They can do what they want with it.”
There was little consensus at that meeting as to how the neighborhood as a whole might respond. Eventually, the group agreed to let the Neighborhood Association oppose any application to remove historic district designation.
Though Spaulding Ranch is a symbol for preservationists, Voss notes that if they succeed in saving the parcel from development, the 20-acre farm is still just an empty patch of land. Without a more defined use—by setting it aside for historic preservation, to combat sprawl, as a symbol of Idaho’s heritage, or for a city park—Spaulding Ranch becomes an obstacle rather than an asset.
“Right now I think it is underutilized land,” said Vos. “It’s just kind of sitting there as a former farm. We’re not taking advantage of it as a farm, and we’re not taking advantage of it as open space.”
Vos noted 20 acres wouldn’t go far for a single family looking to make a livelihood, perhaps as part park and part community garden, Spaulding Ranch and the bench’s agricultural history could take a more prominent place in the community.
But Burns mentioned a proposal that some residents of the neighborhood already hope will take place—returning the land to its roots.
“You could really do a lot to help cement a better relationship to food, especially for children,” said Burns. She acknowledged, “You can grow a whole bunch of food on it, but it’s kind of paled in comparison to the area we actually need to grow food in this valley. In the big picture it’s not much. But I would suggest its greater value is as an educational opportunity.”
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.