More than 300 opponents of a planned subdivision crowded into the Shadow Hills Elementary School gymnasium to fret, fume and figure out how to stop the march of development in Boise. Or at least divert it.
Most of them live in a semirural swath on the city’s northwest edge that soon could be home to three-story apartment buildings, one- and two-story townhouses and a plethora of new single-family dwellings — 307 units on 38 acres where farmland meets Foothills.
Depending on whom you ask, the Prominence subdivision is either boon or bane. To Jane Suggs, a consultant for Boise’s Trilogy Development, the proposal is “the best way to address our community’s concerns with housing availability and affordability.” To Richard Llewellyn, president of the North West Neighborhood Association, it is “our worst nightmare.”
The worried neighbors who streamed into the school gym last Tuesday, March 13, want to do more than just join in the argument that’s roiling Boise, which wants to be the nation’s most livable: Where do we put all the people arriving from California and Washington state, Utah and Arizona and Nevada?
They want to harness the complex local planning and approval processes and use them to protect the bucolic neighborhood many of them have called home for decades.
‘Tell the city what we want’
If they succeed, other preservation-minded Boiseans could use their blueprint in the fight to save their own beloved landmarks. If they fail, the city would be able to make a small dent in its housing needs, which a 2015 analysis estimated at 9,500 over the next decade. Either way, by the time Prominence’s fate has been decided, all sides will have had the opportunity to weigh in.
“We have a chance, I think, to really make a difference here, not just for our neighborhood, but for Boise maybe, at large,” Llewellyn told the polite but worried elementary-school gathering. “We need to tell the city what we like and what we want, how we want to see our area 10 years from now.
“If we don’t do that,” he continued, as aerial footage of the contested land flickered across a screen above his head, “it’s going to change to the extent where we won’t be able to recognize it anymore. Let’s appreciate what we have now at this point.”
Trilogy Development has an office on Cable Car Street in southwest Boise and is owned by John A. Laude Sr., according to an annual business registration filed with the Idaho Secretary of State’s Office. A message left Friday for Laude was not immediately returned.
Suggs, who is Laude’s representative, demurred when asked for information about Trilogy and its owner. “I’m not at liberty to talk about his business,” she said. “He doesn’t want the spotlight.”
Deer, falcons and frogs
The subdivision’s footprint is 38.4 acres roughly bordered by Bogart Lane to the east and Duncan Lane to the west and bisected by West Hill Road Parkway. It is part of an area the city annexed in 2014 and 2015.
Local residents and farmers own another 30 to 40 acres of undeveloped land near the proposed development. Among them are 10 acres farmed by Llewellyn’s family since the 1950s. The 49-year-old biologist is turning part of it into certified organic pasture and plans to raise sheep or cattle.
Llewellyn was alternately poetic, nostalgic and dystopian when he talked about the contested area, beloved land that is “really unique to Boise.”
“We still have this natural connection from the Foothills to the Oregon Trail down into farmland,” he told the group. “You can’t see that anywhere else. And that provides not only a really nice setting for us to walk and cycle ... it also provides great continuity for all sorts of animals.”
There are deer and songbirds and peregrine falcons, gopher snakes and owls and frogs. Llewellyn said people stop him regularly and tell him how grateful they are that the area is unchanged from their childhoods. The neighbors, he noted, are caring and cohesive.
Then a schematic of the proposed subdivision appeared on the screen above his head. An angry hum went up from the audience. Silence fell as he described the possible future.
“Townhouses, townhouses, townhouses, townhouses,” he intoned. “On the other side of the parkway, townhouses, townhouses and then some single family houses here. It’s nothing we ever imagined would happen here.”
The developer wants the city to rezone the area from largely R-1A, which allows for 2.1 dwelling units per acre, to R-1C, which would allow an average of eight dwelling units per acre over the whole project.
Suggs, the consultant for Trilogy, is a planner in the Boise office of WHPacific, an engineering firm. She did not attend Tuesday’s meeting. But she held another well-attended community meeting in December — she called the turnout “record breaking (for me anyway)” — as part of the city-required application process.
Suggs said developers spoke with the most recent farmer of the property, who told them, according to the application letter, that “this is a terrible farm property. It is difficult to get water to most of it, and the soil type is not good. It has lots of rock as well.”
And she emphasized — in the application and in an interview — that housing is not only appropriate for the area, but necessary.
“This is not a ‘sprawl’ development, but is, in fact, a better utilization of the property so as to reduce sprawl,” she wrote to the city.
“We do need housing in Boise,” she told the Statesman. “We need housing of all different types. This project provides that — single family homes, townhouses and apartments all in the project. ... There will be no subsidized or Section 8 housing. It will be market rate.”
City spokesman: Boise needs density
City spokesman Mike Journee would not talk about the Prominence project specifically, but he echoed Suggs’ commentary on Boise’s housing woes. Residents struggle with historically low vacancy rates and a high demand for housing of all kinds. The median home price in Ada County is almost $300,000.
“Our city is growing, and we have a limited amount of tools to address, especially, the challenges with diversity of cost for housing in the city,” Journee said. “The best tool we have is to create more inventory. … That’s where density comes in, to help create that inventory.”
Journee said the city and county have a process in place that developers must follow to have projects approved. That process is designed, he said “to take that public feedback right from the very beginning.”
Some activists in the area complain that the approval process is complicated and far from transparent. But the North West Neighborhood Association hopes to use it as a weapon in its fight against Prominence. Llewellyn laid out a battle plan on Tuesday.
The first step is a review by the Ada County Highway District, because that’s the agency that controls nearly all roads in Boise except state highways. After ACHD, the city Planning and Zoning Commission weighs in and makes a recommendation to the City Council, which has final authority.
There are hearings at every level. Llewellyn emphasized that concerned neighbors need to comment in writing and in person at every step. They need to be aware of deadlines for comment. They need to show up in force.
First up: the highway district
When dealing with the ACHD, Llewellyn said, don’t complain about density or project design or how many units may one day crowd your open space. That’s not ACHD’s concern. The highway district cares about road safety and capacity. Period.
“What are safety issues here?” Llewellyn said. “Pedestrian crossings, especially on Hill Road Parkway. … Lack of sidewalks on Bogart. It’s a real safety concern, the No. 1 safety priority for Boise School District. … Landfill trucks speeding along Hill Road Parkway. … People speeding through the neighborhood. … Accidents. …
“You can tell ACHD this, but if you can, document it with video, cellphone video, cameras. If you see an accident, take a photo. This matters. This can be used. Collect these things.”
Then there’s level of service, which refers to how well a road or intersection can handle the number of vehicles that go through it. Trilogy Development commissioned a traffic impact study that said one intersection a half mile south of the project area, Duncan Lane and State Street, already gets an F for being overcapacity during the evening rush — and that’s without a single new home, let alone 307 of them.
ACHD is expected to have a hearing on the project in April. The Planning and Zoning Commission hearing probably will be in May or June, followed by the City Council in late summer or early fall. Submit your comments a week early, Llewellyn said, and show up.
Laying groundwork for a lawsuit if needed
“Tell (Planning and Zoning) what you really think,” he said. “Do it politely, but you can tell them whatever. Tell them how this development will take away your expectations for your property. That’s especially important if you live adjacent to it.
“That we will use if we need to in further legal proceedings,” he said. “But you have to have that front-loaded on comments.”
He ended, like any good general, with a pep talk. Your very presence is “amazing,” he told the crowd, and it is “causing the city to kind of go, ‘What’s going on out there? We thought we’d annex them and they’d be quiet.’ ”
Remember these tools, he said: meetings, yard signs, an online petition, social media, word of mouth, letters to the editor.
“Keep it up,” he exhorted. “Tell your friends. Tell your neighbors. We’re still in the first quarter. We’re doing a really good job. It’s a battle, but we can change things.”