Last week, Kuna City Council members met with Ada County commissioners. The topic of discussion: growth.
Kuna Mayor Joe Stear’s opening remarks were blunt.
“As we all know, growth at the rate it is happening right now is very tough to keep up with,” he said.
“We have personal property rights involved. People can sell property, and people can buy property, and they have a right to do things with it. As we all know, our state Legislature is very liberal with their personal property rights. I don’t have a problem with that, but it does create some issues, especially like we’re experiencing now.”
The growth — mostly in residential properties — is significant. According to Lisa Holland, the city’s economic development director, there are an estimated 2,600 new homes in the development process.
The spike in home-building is putting pressure on city services, from police to fire to schools, to keep up with increased populations. There are now about 25,000 Kuna residents, a nearly 70% increase over the last decade, according to estimates from the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho, or Compass.
The city council, which has the authority to approve or deny development plans, is taking the brunt of local residents’ frustrations about unfettered residential development.
City leaders, in turn, are frustrated that they’re taking the heat for growth.
“The frustration for council is there’s a lot of citizens that aren’t happy with the growth at the rate that it’s happening,” Stear told the Kuna Melba News.
Councilman Warren Christensen said at the joint meeting, “I think a lot of the time what the residents just don’t understand is by the time it gets to the city government level, sorry, there’s not much we can do.”
When developers follow building rules and agree to fund infrastructure costs, the council will approve the development, Stear said.
“They can sell, buy, develop, and we can’t tell someone, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ unless there’s a reason for that,” Stear said.
Through September of 2019, the city of Kuna has issued 574 new building permits for residential properties. That’s 33 more than were issued during all of 2018.
Winfield Springs, a subdivision near Meridian and Deer Flat roads, owned by Toll Brothers, is the busiest single subdivision this year. It received 92 new building permits.
CBH Homes has been the busiest builder. The Meridian-based builder received more than 230 new building permits for six of its Kuna subdivisions. They are as follows:
Silver Trail (Columbia and Ten Mile): 56 permits
Crimson Point (Deer Flat and Ten Mile): 50 permits
Springhill (Lake Hazel and Linder): 50 permits
Memory Ranch (Lake Hazel and Ten Mile): 35 permits
Arbor Ridge (Sagwon and Linder): 28 permits
Ardell Estates (Sagwon and Linder): 20 permits
The Hubble Homes-owned Greyhawk subdivision (Hubbard and Kay) received 52 new building permits this year.
And Patagonia (Hubbard and Meridian), a subdivision managed by Kent Wang Homes, received 47 permits.
Holland, at the joint meeting, said many of these homes are selling before they’re built.
“Developers continue to look at Kuna because it’s an affordable market to buy land, and it’s an easy place for residents to access the Treasure Valley,” Holland said.
In the second quarter of this year, the median price of a new house in Kuna was $292,117, compared to $388,466 countywide, according to the Intermountain Multiple Listing Service.
Commuting for work
What does this home-building boom mean for the economy as a whole? A primary goal of the city’s comprehensive plan is for Kuna to have a diverse economy.
“Our goal is to make sure we find a balance of job and commercial amenities, to be a well-rounded community, not just a bedroom community,” Holland said. “We want to make sure we’re a full-service community.”
But recent data shows the opposite may be true.
The city of Kuna issued just 14 commercial building permits, or 2% of total new building permits, through September of this year. Commercial tax revenue accounts for about 2% of the city’s tax base, according to the comprehensive plan.
According to Holland, 95% of Kuna residents drive to another city for work.
Kuna residents spent about $66 million on 52 local retail businesses in 2018, but they spent about $240 million in retail stores outside of Kuna, Holland said.
“Overall, we’re losing about $174 million in retail sales, and that’s why we’re putting a big focus on trying to bring some of those services closer,” she said.
The city is looking east, near the CS Beef Packers plant and the Idaho State Correctional Center, as a potential master plan industrial area, that would attract companies and create local jobs.
“We really see this as an area that could be a great industrial area for Kuna, to help service our population and get some of the people off of the freeways,” Holland said.
In the retail sector, Holland and other city officials are touting Kuna’s growing population and housing options as reasons for retailers to set up shop here. Companies choose communities based on those two factors, Holland said.
Among other retailers, Wendy’s, Panda Express and D&B Supply will be opening Kuna locations in the near future.
“We’re starting to meet the requirements of a lot of those companies, and we’re starting to see a lot more conversations,” Holland said. “Commercial business helps diversify the tax base, make it a little more stable for communities long term. That’s why we keep talking about the business strategies, we want to make sure we build a community that’s got services and amenities for residents in the future.”
Stear said road congestion is not a pressing issue in Kuna. The city’s roads can handle “much more traffic,” based on Ada County Highway District traffic studies, and the county is keeping up with road sizes, Stear said.
“They’re the traffic experts,” he said.
When it comes to residential growth, Stear’s primary concern is for the school district.
“Our growth rate is happening so fast that it’s difficult for entities like the school district to keep up with that growth,” he said. “The tax base from that growth doesn’t come quickly enough, until the growth kind of gets ahead of you.”
But Wendy Johnson, Kuna School District superintendent, says the district is prepared to handle an influx new students that development likely will bring.
“We want to make sure that we can educate them safely and in an environment that they are happy in and (that’s) not overcrowded,” she said. “We want to make sure that we’re ready for that, and I feel like in our plans and our conversations we are.”
A $40 million bond in 2017 that funded new facilities, a $2.5 million bi-annual supplemental levy, voted on in March, and a $1.38 million emergency levy, approved last month, have helped the school district meet increased enrollment needs.
The district’s approach to growth has been proactive, rather than reactive, Johnson said.
“We feel like we planned ahead as conservatively as we can, but also as proactively as we can, building what we need and being ready for the growth,” she said.
The 2017 bond allowed the district to expand two elementary schools, convert Teed Elementary School into Fremont Middle School, renovate Kuna Middle School, add a new multipurpose athletic room to Kuna High School and build a new 500-student high school, which is scheduled to open next fall.
This year Kuna schools saw a 286-student enrollment increase, which led the district to seek an emergency levy. The levy paid for additional staff, supplies and technology. It also allowed the district to replenish its fund balance and contingency reserves, after a mid-year enrollment spike took away some of those funds.
A 10-year school district growth plan, published in 2017, considers 286 new students a rate between medium and high growth. Medium growth is about 223 new students per year, and high is 342.
This year’s building boom may push enrollment to the high rate of growth in the coming years. According to the 10-year plan, the district estimates 0.65 students live in each household. The 574 building permits already issued in Kuna this year would translate to 373 new students, according to the district’s formula, and there are still three months remaining in 2019.
If enrollment growth moves into a high rate, the 10-year plan calls for constant building projects and three bond measures, in 2020, 2023 and 2026, to fund the projects, in addition to $2.5 million in supplemental levies every other year until 2027, if voters approve them.
“We can’t do it by ourselves,” Johnson said. “We are definitely going to need support from our community. Every three years we’ve talked about needing another bond. If we don’t get that passed, we’re going to be in reactive mode.”