CALDWELL — The Canyon County Planning and Zoning Commission unanimously voted on Dec. 1 to deny an application for a 5,000-seat amphitheater in the Sunnyslope wine region.
“I love the idea, I just could not support it in this location, because the Sunnyslope is beautiful and this would completely change the character of the area,” Commissioner Miguel Villafana said ahead of the vote.
The project — proposed by Symms Fruit Ranch and the owners of Mountain Winery, a vineyard and concert venue in California — would be located on a little over 45 acres a bit southeast of the intersection of Lowell Road and Highway 55. In addition to the amphitheater, the applicant proposed adding a cidery, U-pick orchards and potentially later, an event center.
The applicant had applied for a conditional use permit to allow the development, referred to in the staff report as an “Agritourism Oriented Special Events Facility.”
Though the project was denied, the applicant could choose to appeal the decision to the Board of County Commissioners, said Joe Decker, spokesperson for the county.
During the hearing, the applicant said the new venue would fill a niche in the Treasure Valley. But the public shared numerous concerns, which fell into several main buckets: whether the project truly represents agritourism, traffic and noise levels, and the ability of emergency responders to reach the site in a timely fashion.
IS IT AGRITOURISM?
Building a 5,000-seat amphitheater on the Sunnyslope would fill a need in the Treasure Valley both for a concert venue of that size and to support agritourism, said Bill Leclerc, director of real estate development at Lexor Investments, at the hearing.
“We’re going to bring a high-end ag tourism facility that’s going to help support ag business in the area, by bringing more people out to Sunnyslope that would not make it there if this facility wasn’t there,” Leclerc said. It also would attract talent that would not bother with smaller or larger venues, he said.
The Idaho Botanical Garden can accommodate a range of 400 to 4,000 people; Indian Creek Plaza can accommodate 6,500; and the Idaho Center amphitheater accommodates around 10,000, said Jenna Petroll a planner with the county.
The cidery, farm-to-fork food service during events, and U-pick orchards would be on-site agritourism opportunities, in addition to the venue supporting the surrounding Sunnyslope wineries, Leclerc said.
Most of the soils on the parcel are classified as prime farmland if irrigated, Petroll said. But Leclerc said that the Symms “can no longer farm (the parcel) effectively.”
County planning and development staff had recommended approval of the project. The project aligns with eight goals and 16 policies in the county’s 2020 comprehensive plan, and does not align with two goals and four policies, Petroll said. Staff referenced the county’s old planning document because the applicant submitted their proposal earlier this year, ahead of the county’s adoption of its new 2030 comprehensive plan.
A handful of entities wrote letters of support for the project, including the owners of the Orchard House, Ste. Chapelle Winery, and the executive director of the Idaho Wine Commission, Moya Schatz Dolsby.
But numerous people who testified against the project said that a concert venue should not be considered agritourism.
“I feel like the U-pick orchard is a token to agritourism in the middle of a giant commercial attempt,” said Rebecca Hartman, whose property backs up to the location of the proposed amphitheater.
Jeff Matthews said he lives about 1.5 miles up the hill from the site, and wondered if approval of the project would allow businesses to follow, such as hotels, fast food, or other commercial endeavors. He said that the project would be a commercial development, and as such, is not limited use, and does not belong in the area.
TRAFFIC AND NOISE
The Idaho Department of Transportation conducted a traffic impact study for the project; its findings are included in the staff report. The study estimated the volume of traffic on the road to be 1,700 vehicles per hour during the peak arrival hour, which it defined as 4-5 p.m. on event days, and 2,100 vehicles per hour during peak departure hour, which it defined as 9-10 p.m. on event days.
Leclerc said that on the day of events, they would likely plan to open the facility’s gates at 5:30 p.m. and shows would end at 11 p.m.
The study found that some improvements would need to be made to accommodate the traffic, including making the highway five lanes at the intersection of Farmway Road and Highway 55, and adding turn lanes at access points to the site on Lowell Road.
But people who spoke in opposition to the project were still concerned that the traffic impact in the area would be excessive.
Judy Leathers, who lives in the Sunnyslope area, said the traffic is not great during rush hour times now, let alone what it could be if the facility were constructed.
“I can’t even imagine trying to get home from Boise or Nampa and driving in that,” Leathers said.
Sarah Arjona, the former District 3 development services coordinator for the Idaho Transportation Department, testified against the project, saying it could take years for the department to make the necessary road improvements, following an environmental study and properly funding the work. She said she would not advocate for a moratorium on development, but suggested that responsible development involves allowing projects on corridors where improvements are already funded and “where the infrastructure exists.”
The applicant “wouldn’t be responsible for all the improvements needed, but should work with ITD and (Canyon Highway District 4) to share mitigation fees for the eventual construction of the project,” according to the staff report.
As for noise, Arjona called the study presented by the applicant “a little bit light.” The readings at certain sites were above 67 decibels, “which, by the way, in a transportation study, that is considered uncomfortable for residents and is considered impactful,” she said, adding the study should take more factors into account to determine how to alleviate residents’ noise concerns.
During rebuttal, Leclerc reiterated his company’s solid record at the California facility, adding that “to be questioned on the way we’ve run our operations and how we’ve tried to prepare some of the work tonight is quite offensive.”
“I made it clear that we did not do a sound study with a qualified sound engineer,” he said. “We used someone who is in the concert business who understands sound projections and where they’re going,” adding that the purpose of the initial study was to provide some raw data to present at Thursday’s hearing. When they build the facility, they plan to hire a sound engineer to design it so that it “minimizes impacts to the surrounding area,” Leclerc said.
Bill Hirschman, a civil engineer working with the applicant, said that Mountain Winery keeps an onsite medic to assist with any health issues that arise during concerts, and would likely do the same at the proposed venue. As for fire preparedness, the facility would have water tanks that would be available for fire suppression, he said.
Jolyn Thompson, Marsing’s city clerk and treasurer, testified in favor of the project, noting as part of her testimony that emergency response times for the fire department are 10 minutes.
Despite the area’s proximity to the Marsing Rural Fire District, a volunteer department, documented response times are considered overly long, as previously reported. Petroll said response times for the district are known to be closer to 45 minutes.
Amy Bitner, who co-owns Bitner Vineyards, testified that when a fire ripped through her vineyard a few years ago, her workers and Symms workers had put the fire out by the time fire personnel arrived over an hour later.