East Valley’s last dairy farmers look to develop 860 acres, leave area

“The East Valley had a large number of dairies, and they’ve all been replaced by development,” he said. “Which, you know, is good in a lot of ways, most of those guys were able to sell their land and build bigger dairies.”

Boyle Jr.’s dairy is one of five in the neighborhood near southeast Mesa involved in a massive, 860 acre zoning request. It’s a critical juncture for the dairymen: They need to decide whether to stay in the area or go. Equipment is aging and it’s time to expand, to milk more cows to keep up with an industry gone global.

Farmers look to join Mesa

Their decision hinges on Mesa annexing and zoning the land to increase its value for sale to a developer.

If the dairymen are successful in zoning the primarily-agriculture land to housing, commercial and other uses, it’s likely they’ll pack up and sell, moving to counties with far more space for agriculture, like Pinal or Pima. If the zoning fails, the dairies will probably stay put for decades, investing tens of millions in upgrades.

The neighborhood borders Gilbert. Christened the “inner loop” by those in the planning effort, it’s the area near Loop 202 around Elliot and Hawes Road. Much of the land falls within Maricopa County and will require annexation into Mesa before development could take off.

The group of dairy farmers plan to take their zoning application to Mesa later this year, according to Jordan Rose, the attorney representing the farmers. The group wants to work with city officials to refine the plan for approval by the City Council next year. The proposed land-use plan so far includes residential, urban mixed-use, commercial and office space areas.

While the dairy industry shifted, so did the neighborhood. Boyle Jr.’s view now includes cars speeding by on Loop 202 and a soaring building looming in the distance. Neighbors in nearby housing developments complain about the smell and the bugs.

A long history in dairy farming

Boyle Jr.’s family has been dairy farming in Arizona since the 1880s, and in the Phoenix area since the 1920s. His grandfather milked cows. His father milked cows. In the 1970s, the family’s dairy landed in the Mesa area.

It was a popular spot for dairies: Dutch dairy farmers, too, settled in the vast expanse of agricultural land around the same time as Boyle Jr.’s family, he said.

Around the turn of the 20th century, a newly-built ice plant spurred milk and dairy processing, according to Vic Linoff, president of the Mesa Preservation Foundation.

But that was back when farmland was more prevalent than strip malls. In the intervening years, the landscape changed. Eastmark, one of the nation’s top-selling communities, is now right across the freewayfrom the proposed development area.

The changes haven’t been contained to just dairy farming. Citrus farming, too, is waning.

“Ever since World War II, with the rapid urban expansion of the city, all of the Valley cities, agriculture has just kind of disappeared,” Linoff said.

For Boyle Jr., changes present challenges.

“There used to be farm fields all over the place,” he said. “We have to go farther to find feed.”

Hay, too, is harder to source locally. Some hay comes from as far as Yuma, an expensive endeavor.

Nine dairies once operated in Boyle Jr.’s neighborhood. That number’s down to seven, he said. Five are involved in the zoning process.

It’s unclear whether they’d be missed.

Changing neighborhood, new neighbors

Heather Diepstraten and her husband have been living in the Boulder Creek subdivision for 12 years. Just a dirt strip separates their house from a nearby dairy farm, where they can see a large pile of manure from the backyard.

The pile seems to have grown bigger in the past three years, she said.

When they first moved in, the dairies seemed much less intrusive. But recently, the smell, the manure, the bugs — it all feels like it’s gotten worse, she said.

“We understand that he was here first, but it’s just got to come to a point where it isn’t sanitary anymore,” Diepstraten said.

They tried to throw a pool party last summer, but the smell was too overpowering for their friends.If something doesn’t change in the next year, she said they will pack up and move instead.

Diepstraten is enthusiastic that the dairies may give way to development and so are her neighbors, she said.

“At this point, we’re excited for anything,” she said.

Planning for the future

Boyle Jr. envisions a bigger property for his operation. Somewhere in the state where he can raise more animals and install high-tech cooling.

“These dairies are old, they’re 40-years-old,” he said. “They’re not high-tech … This cooling is antiquated.”

He’s competing for business in a global marketplace: against dairymen in New Zealand and Ireland. In all, he’s got about 5,000 animals at his dairy, but he wants more. More land. More animals. The upgrades he intends are doable on the land he has now, but it would likely involve combining some existing dairies. Trying to sell the land as it’s zoned now would yield little, Boyle Jr. said.

“Nobody wants the land, there’s not a demand for (agricultural zoning).”

The plan the dairymen are putting together includes single-family homes, commercial, office, and park space.

It’s up to the dairies if they want to leave, Mesa Councilman Kevin Thompson said. His district encompasses many of the dairy farms. He lives nearby and smells them every time the wind shifts. It doesn’t bother him.

But he does not want to see hasty planning. He wants the area to grow strategically, with opportunities for businesses to expand, maybe more office space. Big companies have moved in right across the freeway in the Elliot Road Technology Corridor near Signal Butte. Apple has a massive data center. A Niagara bottling facility is under construction down the street.

“Let’s work together to figure out what’s the best thing to put there and not just put housing up because that’s the easiest way to sell property and make a buck,” Thompson said.

The proposed inner loop development is not in the corridor, but there is talk to extend the area to include the land, a city spokesperson said.

About 37 percent (316 acres) of the 860 acres are zoned for single-family housing, Rose said. The jobs per household ratio is two to one. The group of dairymen will continue to work with the city and other stakeholders to refine their plan and figure out the best use for the land,Rose said.

The dairymen want a decision by around spring 2018. Boyle Jr. said it would take about year to pack up and build a new dairy. Though the land holds his family history and his kids are growing up there, it’s not the same.

“It’s changed so much but I guess I don’t have a connection to this place as much as I used to,” he said.

Farms that are part of the plan include Boyle Dairy, Van Rijn Dairy, Maynard Dairy, Rijlaarsdam Dairy and Feenstra Dairy. The farms are near Loop 202 and Elliot Road.

 

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