Balancing our small town charm with steady growth - part 4 of 7

New developments happen where land is available. Approximately 15 acres of the Runnings’ land, historically farmland in Spearfish Valley along Evans Lane, is currently on the market.

Pioneer file photo

SPEARFISH — Envision Spearfish, the city’s comprehensive plan, states, “Growth brings benefits and disadvantages. It is the goal of the comprehensive plan to identify the benefits to be pursued, and plan wisely for the impacts.” One of the first goals stated in the plan is for Spearfish to be a “safe, sustainable municipality,” and the idea of sustainability covers a wide range of issues.

City Planner Jayna Watson said that her job is to help ensure the kinds of zoning ordinance methods exist to allow Spearfish to continue to be the community where its residents want to live.

“The thing I think everybody sort of mourns a little bit, is when things change,” she said, discussing growth. “I see Spearfish as having very distinct places. Downtown will always look like downtown.”  

Watson is currently working with the planning commission to draft a flexible use zoning district that is more free form in nature, allowing a developer more flexibility and providing incentives for creative design and community benefits.

She would like to see newer neighborhoods balanced in terms of housing choices. Alternative housing options exist that the city could be looking at; a lot depends on whether a developer is willing to take that risk and move in a different direction than more traditional options.

Though people do not like density in terms of population in a small area, the upside to housing options in that type of community development is that it is more cost-efficient, utilities do not need to be installed across every frontage, and it helps to preserve open spaces.

Watson pointed to the 2011 Main Street redo as an example of how the city needs to continue to consider pleasant pedestrian space with trees and other amenities, holding future projects to the same standards.

Katie Greer, the sustainability coordinator at Black Hills State University, discussed the movement in local governments called Smart Growth. This movement calls for cities to grow up instead of out, preserving farm and ranch land around the communities, revitalizing central downtown areas to keep people in town, and creating public transportation systems and “complete streets,” designed not just for automobile transportation, but for transportation of all kinds for all ages, from strollers to walkers to wheelchairs to bicycles and more.

“What I’d like to see are walkable, bikeable, safe routes for actually getting to places,” versus for recreation only, Greer said. “You can walk wherever you want now, but it’s not necessarily safe.”

Working at the university, she would like to see students with or without vehicles have easy options to leave campus to be able to support the local economy.

“It would be really great to get students to spend their money downtown or make it as easy as possible for them to want to do that,” Greer said.

That ties into another project she is involved in: Spearfish Local, a grant-funded internship and marketing program that partners BHSU Sustainability, the city of Spearfish, local producers and businesses to promote local foods. The university’s graphic design club created a logo for businesses that sell local foods and products to help shoppers to identify those options.

The local food system is one aspect of sustainability, and Greer listed reusing and recycling; efficient, environmentally-friendly building material and design; safe and convenient public transportation; renewable energy; and resilient, sustainable local economy as other aspects of sustainability a community should strive for. One recent step toward these goals is the subscription-based curbside recycling that started in July 2014.

“I think the city is excited for new ideas and has been very supportive of what we’ve wanted to do with the Spearfish Local program,” Greer added.

BHSU has a climate action plan, adopted in 2009, with the goal of being carbon neutral by 2050. The plan has to be revised every five years, and Greer said so much has already changed since looking at the initial plan and seeing what has been accomplished. Many of the steps could be translated into the larger community, she added.

Jeremy Smith and Trish Jenkins would like to see more of those considerations in Spearfish. They run Cycle Farm on Evans Lane and are interested in building community and local resiliency through the food system using human-powered and natural farming practices on their approximately 3-acre farm. They got interested in local food systems while living in New Mexico, and when they decided to get into farming for themselves, they wanted to find a place where they could have a good impact. Smith grew up in Spearfish and has family here, and when they found land in Spearfish Valley, they felt they could do the most good through producing and adding momentum to the local food movement here. Smith and Jenkins are involved with the local famers market, the bicycle cooperative, South Dakota Rural Action, Spearfish Local, ag-land preservation campaigns, and they also dabble in water quality and land health issues as well. This winter, Jenkins is facilitating a “Farm Beginnings” class, a business-planning course for people interested in getting involved/more involved with agriculture.

Smith described Spearfish as feeling like a smaller town than it actually is. People have an appreciation for its rural qualities, and he said the qualities that contribute to this small-town feeling include its accessibility to easily get around, wide streets, ag land close to and in town, and low traffic.

“If we can take these things that are reasons that we feel like a small town and make them part of the development of the town, then I think we can retain that feeling,” he said. “I think there can be really intelligent choices made on a planning level that keep those characteristics.”

Jenkins added that a number of states in the Northeast have adopted statewide programs to purchase conservation easements or adopt Smart Growth plans that include complete streets and urban growth boundaries.

“Land and open space is a finite resource, so it’s a priority to preserve it, whereas here, it seems like it’s a harder thing to convince people to prioritize, because it doesn’t seem finite,” she said.

Examples of land that had been used for agriculture that were sold or are for sale with price tags that point to future developments include the land referred to as the Meier Ranch off of North Avenue, where Creekside Elementary School and the Creekside Estates apartment complex are built, and the approximately 15-acre Runnings property off of Evans Lane.

Spearfish City Councilman Doug Schmit explained that the council is not able to dictate what happens to land once a property owner decides to sell it.

“We work with people. We certainly aren’t going to make all people happy — we try to reach that compromise,” he said. “We have to respect the landowner’s purpose for what they’re trying to do.”

In December of 2013, there was also a special election for the involuntary annexation into the city limits of Upper and Lower Valley areas, historically major ag land, which residents voted down.

From a producer’s perspective, Jenkins is torn, because she wants to keep historically fertile land — like Spearfish Valley — available for agriculture but realizes growth happens and wants to help to guide it, so having some kind of ag land preservation program in place — one that is able to keep a community accountable to it — is critical, in her view. Once ag land is developed and invested with infrastructure, that land use is changed, likely, forever. People in this area are familiar with the idea of protecting mountains and wildlife refuge areas. There is a conservation easement on approximately 750 acres on Lookout Mountain, but the bird’s eye view of the mountain shows developments bumping up to the open space. Ag land preservation is slowly gaining momentum in the Midwest as parts of the Eastern and Western United States feel the pressure of losing open space and agriculture opportunities. A group called Spearfish Ag-Land Preservation and Dakota Rural Action are hosting a meeting at 6 p.m. Feb. 2 at Hudson Hall to discuss options about preserving agricultural land in the area.

“It just feels like we’re at a really crucial and opportune time in our growth and projection … (with a) wealth of experience and plans that we can learn from,” Jenkins said. “This is such a good time to be like, ‘Smart Growth — okay, let’s put together a plan, a conservation plan, a walkable streets plan, and bicycle infrastructure’ … a really good time for Spearfish ...”

Part of their desire for the city to take these steps is based on their planning process at the farm, acknowledging that future conditions are not likely to be the same as past conditions, and planning accordingly.

“A whole lot of our decisions are based on climate change and thinking about water/energy resources in the future on the farm, so basing our operation off what we project our future resource base to be. … I think if the city does not do that, the city is going to have a hard time meeting any needs, let alone the diverse needs of the population,” Smith said.

See tomorrow’s Pioneer for the next installment of the series.

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