Boise eyes more open space for $10 million

The City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to put a bond on the November ballot.

sberg@idahostatesman.comSeptember 9, 2013 

  • BOND VS. LEVY: HOW BIETER CHOSE

    Before he pitched the idea of a 20-year bond, Mayor Dave Bieter and his staff briefly examined using a two-year levy to raise money for parks, open space and public safety facilities.

    The levy process would have mirrored the 2001 measure that raised $10 million to protect undeveloped land in the Foothills.

    If you're trying to raise money, the short-term levy offers a distinct advantage over the bond: A simple majority is enough to pass it. A long-term bond needs a two-thirds supermajority. In 2001, 59 percent of voters were enough to pass the Foothills levy.

    The levy's disadvantage is that it condenses the additional tax burden into two years instead of spreading it out over two decades.

    The total for Bieter's bond proposal ended up at $32.4 million - more than triple the Foothills levy. A two-year levy for that amount would have cost homeowners "in the hundreds of dollars" per year, Bieter spokesman Adam Park said.

    "It was just too much for the average homeowner to bear," Park said.

  • ABOUT THIS SERIES

    This is the third in an occasional series looking at Mayor Dave Bieter's proposal for a city bond measure to finance more parks, more open space and more fire and police facilities.

  • Bieter’s bond: the basics

    The Boise City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to put two bond measures totaling more than $32 million on the Nov. 5 ballot. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. in the council's chambers on the third floor of City Hall, 150 Capitol Blvd.

    One bond would authorize the city to borrow about $17 million for upgrades to four fire stations and a new fire training facility.

    The other bond would set aside $10 million for open space purchases and pay for $5.5 million worth of investments in Central and West bench parks.

    The city has until Sept. 16 to submit its ballot language for the bond to the county clerk.

Boise Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway won't say exactly which pieces of Foothills land the city wants to buy next. He's worried that publishing the information would drive up prices.

What he will talk about is the principle that guides negotiations to buy and protect more open space: connectivity. The city wants to buy privately owned land to eliminate gaps between the scattered pieces it already owns.

Doing so would ensure permanent public access to some of the Foothills' most popular recreation areas.

"When you start looking at what we own, you start seeing the puzzle slowly start to look like it needs to get pieced together," Holloway said. "Ideally, the ultimate goal would be, 'How could everything at some point have some connection?' Don't know if we're going to be able to get there, because that's pretty vast."

With that in mind, it's not hard to draw conclusions about which specific parcels the city wants. For example, a small strip of land near Stewart Gulch separates two large city-owned plots. Boise would love to get its hands on that prime real estate.

Farther to the south, there's a larger piece of private land around Hulls Gulch north of the Military Reserve. Those few hundred acres seem likely to draw the city's attention.

Without confirming sites, Holloway said the city is in discussions to buy more land.

Sara Arkle of the Idaho Conservation League said her organization supports Mayor David Bieter's proposal to borrow $10 million for open space purchases. Partly, that's because one of the group's main focus points is protecting water quality, and limiting development in the Foothills would make it easier to keep pollution from running into the Boise River.

But mainly, Arkle said, ICL wants to enhance an asset that makes Boise a place where people want to live. Clean water is part of that. So is the ability to walk or ride a bike from Downtown into wide swaths of undeveloped land.

"Here's an opportunity to build on something that we know is precious to this city," she said. "Having the Boise River clean enough to boat in, clean enough to fish in, is another natural amenity that is just priceless in this community."

A study by College of William and Mary student Niall Garrahan concluded that the Foothills contributed more than $11 million to Boise's economy in 2011 through increased property values and what are known as "ecosystem services" - things like clean water, biodiversity and flood control.

"There are several downsides to the Foothills conservation project as well," Garrahan wrote. "One of the biggest detriments is foregone development that could have led to new jobs and economic stimulation. Denying this development also leads to less tax revenue for the city, as does buying up privately held land. … It seems that (these losses) may be worth sacrificing from an economic point of view, given the huge amount of value the Foothills add to the city."

Over the past decade, the city used a $10 million special levy that passed in 2001 to protect about 11,000 acres in the Foothills. Most of that money is spent. About $1.8 million remains.

"No one anticipated when (the levy) passed that we would see the kinds of benefits we have seen," said Adam Park, Mayor David Bieter's spokesman.

Bieter first mentioned the bond at his State of the City address in June. Then, he proposed a single ballot measure that would authorize the city to borrow as much as $50 million. After examining potential projects and hearing from his constituents, Bieter recommended splitting the bond.

Not much organized opposition has materialized. The Idaho Freedom Foundation asked the City Council to halt the bond, suggesting it would lead to economic pain for Treasure Valley residents.

City officials estimate both bond measures, if they pass, will cost an extra dollar per month each year for owners of Boise's average home, which is valued at $184,000.

Holloway and other city officials say they're also looking at other areas on Boise's perimeter and interior for open space protection. Some undeveloped land south of the city might be worth keeping that way, they said. They also want to look at pockets of land inside city limits, such as the 54-acre Hyatt Wetland Reserve on Maple Grove Road.

Another study, this one by Marylhurst University student Brandy Wilson, predicted Boise's original $10 million investment in the Foothills would yield $480 million of economic benefit over 30 years.

"The investment that we make in things like natural areas and clean water are going to pay huge dividends down the road, and there's no better time than today to continue making that sort of investment," said Tim Breuer, executive director of the Land Trust of the Treasure Valley. "It's about assuring that, as we move forward, we can assure Boise's quality of life will remain vibrant and it'll be a great place to raise a family, maybe move a business, attract high-quality employees."

Sven Berg: 377-6275

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