Bill would cut Idaho cities’ power over building design

Requiring sidewalks no one uses and other features drives up costs, proponents say.

THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEWFebruary 21, 2014 

Capitol Mall parking garage.JPG

The garage on West Washington Street is on track to be completed later this year, in time for the 2015 legislative session. Funded by bonds sold by the Idaho State Building Authority, it will have five covered levels on its west end, with a ramp up to the roof for a sixth level at the east end. Vehicles will be able to access the garage from 6th and 7th streets.

DAVID STAATS — dstaats@idahostatesman.com

  • THE GARAGE THAT STARTED THE FIGHT

    State officials have long wanted to provide additional parking in the area around the Capitol and state office buildings. But the $8.9 million state parking garage now being built to serve the Capitol Mall had a bumpy start a year ago, when the city of Boise’s Design Review Committee and its Planning and Zoning Commission rejected the state’s plan.

    They said that the design was not compatible with the adjacent neighborhood, a mix of state and lobbying groups’ office buildings and old homes.

    The Legislature feared a possible rejection by the city could damage the state’s credit and drive up construction costs, considered a bill to override the city. Some lawmakers worried, though, that the state was exerting its power to wiggle out of local planning rules, upsetting the balance between state and local authority. The Boise City Council ultimately approved the plan. Construction began in June.

    Statesman staff

Municipal design review rules would all become voluntary under the legislation, and developers in Idaho couldn’t be told to make structural changes in proposed buildings for aesthetic reasons.

“We’ve got to allow participants in a market to act like a market, to reflect choice,” Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, told the Idaho House Local Government Committee.

His comments followed more than two hours of testimony. Cities, local planning officials and architects opposed the bill, while business interests including the Idaho Retailers Association backed it.

On a divided voice vote, the panel approved House Bill 480 and sent it to the full House for debate.

The measure is the latest version of a concept Morse has been working on for some time, initially spurred by the city of Boise’s design review requirements on a 650-space state parking garage under construction near the Capitol in a designated historic district of mostly residential buildings.

Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, thanked Morse for bringing the bill.

“I have several commercial buildings in the town that I live in,” said Sims, a car dealer. She said one is more than 40 years old but has had four additions; the other is 4 years old, and she’s faced “substantial” costs due to city requirements.

“I’ve had to add 643 feet of sidewalk that nobody has ever stepped a foot on; there’s no sidewalk leading to it or leading from it,” Sims said. “I have 20 trees that shade absolutely nothing. I have grassy swales that take up … 20 parking spaces.”

Pam Eaton, lobbyist for the Idaho Retailers Association, said, “I think we have to trust businesses, that they want what’s best for their community.”

Opponents of the bill said city design rules protect values that local communities decide are important.

“If you take design review away from my city, it would hurt downtown business owners who desire a beautiful and safe environment for their business,” said Brian Billingsley, planning and zoning director for the city of Caldwell.

While making design review requirements voluntary, the bill still would allow cities to impose design requirements in designated historic districts, and for signage, lighting, landscaping and screening.

Cities also could still require conditional-use permits for some developments, and the bill allows regulation of surface finishes.

The bill also requires that all requirements be “clear, ascertainable and not based on subjective considerations.”

betsyr@spokesman.com

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