Planning for rapid growth

Ron Burtz

Part 9 of a series examining the economic and lifestyle impacts of the in-migration to Custer County.
Custer County’s growing pains are being felt perhaps nowhere more keenly than in county and city planning departments where revenues from building permits and other fees have soared and planners are regularly taking on new challenges from the increasing numbers of new residents.
County planning director Terri Kester said permits for road approaches (needed for getting a 911 address for new construction) and septic systems are the leaders among fees collected.
Last year the county sold 106 approach permits and in the first half of this year 66 permits have been applied for, which highway superintendent Jesse Doyle said “keeps us hopping.”
Property owners are also doing a great deal of subdividing, according to Kester. Acreages are being split into two or more lots, mostly for selling off the new adjoining properties, she believes. Kester said one man who has owned property west of town for a number of years intends to subdivide, sell the lots and retire on the income.
In 2020 the office did 21 property plats which included subdivisions, lot consolidations, lot line adjustments and a large number of section line vacations. This year the number is already at 27 and Kester doesn’t expect it to slow down anytime soon.
The increased activity is perhaps seen best in the rise in fee revenues being collected by the planning office. Last year Kester’s office collected $106,000 in permit fees, but already in 2021 that number is at $96,000. She said, whereas normally the office averages about $6,000 in revenues per month, those numbers started to soar in April of this year when the office collected $12,000 in fees.
It has only gone up from there, with June setting a record for Kester’s three years in the office by topping $17,000, which included a permit for a new cell phone tower. As of Friday, fee collections by the planning office were already at $13,000 for July.
One of the hot spots for development in the county at the moment is the Custer Highlands area west on Hwy. 16 toward Newcastle, Wyo. The largely undeveloped but dry area on the west side of Hell Canyon had previously seen a great deal of activity and is busy again as buildable properties are being rapidly bought up.
“Custer Highlands is booming,” said Kester. “We have an installer out there who just cannot keep up.”  
Kester said the contractor who does dirt work, approaches and septic has also kept Jim Kor, her office’s septic system inspector, hopping as well.
“There was one day where Jim went and inspected six systems out there,” she said.
Asked what the landowners are doing about the lack of easily accessed water in the area, Kester said they are either installing cisterns or spending the extra money to dig the necessary deep wells. She said, while her office is getting a great many applications for septic system installations, the process of actually installing the hardware is being delayed by a shortage of the concrete tanks.
In addition to the 28 parcels that recently were platted at Star Valley Estates at the site of the former STAR Academy south of Custer, Kester said much development is also taking place in southern Custer County south of Pringle.
Last year the planning department approved the Gold Rush subdivision just north of Argyle Road and this year approval was given to the 35-parcel Desperado subdivision on Argyle Road.
The area around Hermosa is growing as well, although, because of the town’s one-mile planning jurisdiction radius, Kester said she is not as intimately aware of the details. A new subdivision is going in on the north side of the town along Hwy. 79 that will be annexed into Hermosa.
“They have a really good plan,” said Kester.
Custer City is feeling the pressure as well and city planning director Tim Hartmann is keeping busy, sometimes just with answering and returning phone calls.
Over the last several years “a fairly standard, but big year” would see five to six new homes being built over the year, said Hartman.
“We’re in July and I’ve already permitted six,” said Hartmann Friday.
He said the trend started at mid-year 2020, but has exploded this summer. As an example, he holds up the situation with the monthly meetings of the city planning commission.
Noting activity always picks up in the spring, Hartmann said for the past several years the average May through July commission meeting consisted of between three and five agenda items. This June, however, the number doubled to 10 and was at nine for July’s meeting. Requests for plats, conditional use permits and other items have more than doubled over previous years and Hartmann doesn’t expect it to slow down significantly any time soon.
He said such speedy growth does have its challenges, such as trying to figure out how to get city services to lots that are “topographically challenging.”
With a shortage of easily buildable lots in the city limits, Hartmann said last last year people began to buy up vacant lots that have never been developed because they are steep and rocky. Some of those lots, such as those on the south side of French Creek above Washington Street, have been platted since the town was founded.
Because of the difficulty of getting access to water and sewer lines, Hartmann said those lots are “not as economically friendly to build on.” However, he said those lots began to sell and he began getting requests to build on them.
“Holy cow, we’re trying to figure out how to get water and sewer into spots that are on a vertical hillside,” exclaimed Hartmann.
He has worked on those projects over the winter  and said they are coming together, but have been a challenge.   
“Anything’s buildable with the right resources,” he said.
Custer has jurisdictional authority over planning in a three-mile radius of the city limits, which causes Hartmann to work hand-in-hand with Kester’s office.
The city planner said he talks to county planning at least every other day and recently Kester called him for thoughts about an annexation issue at Hermosa.
In addition, the two offices worked together recently on a new development just south of town along Sidney Park Road. The Tin Cup Trail property was subdivided into 10 lots by a person who bought it a number of years ago with the intention of eventually developing it.
One concern expressed by Hartmann is that some of the out-of-state buyers are purchasing moderately priced homes in Custer for the purpose of having a second home for use a couple of weeks a year and perhaps renting out the properties as nightly rentals. He said that takes affordable housing off the market for use by permanent residents.
And still the calls continue to come into the city and county offices from people in other states looking to relocate to the area.
Stopping former mayor Corbin Herman on the street recently, Hartmann reported, “Just so you know, if you ask me what I get done in my day, it’s answer the phone. I would say since April or May, first part of June, it’s just all the time.”
Almost comically, Hartmann said most of the conversations follow the nearly identical script as calls taken by Kester and Register of Deeds Teri Morgan (see last week’s installment in this series).
“We love what South Dakota has to offer,” “We came on vacation and now we want to move there,” “We’re unhappy with our current state government,” the callers nearly all repeat.  
Hartmann said some days he can spend nearly half his working hours answering questions over the phone.


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