Prodded by projects they don’t like, neighborhood groups are dusting off a little-known Boise ordinance to preserve the character of the places they live.
In the East End, a plan for a home on Mobley Drive off Warm Springs Avenue spurred a group of neighbors to start organizing what the city calls a conservation district. The house would have been two stories and narrow, while most nearby homes are single-level ranch-style structures built in the 1950s.
Across town, a September proposal to build a CVS Pharmacy at the corner of State and 17th streets prompted residents to step up a year-old effort to establish a conservation district there.
Conservation districts, or conservation overlays, are similar to historic districts. They restrict development by regulating architectural styles, height, massing and uses of buildings, as well as parking and other uses. Unlike historic districts, they don’t restrict less obvious features such as materials and window sill depths.
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As developers look for ways to build projects in established neighborhoods, Boise is likely to see more interest in conservation districts, said Hal Simmons, the city’s planning director.
“They’re a good tool if they’re not abused,” Simmons said. “They can’t be used to just stop development. But if you can come up with some reasonable standards to kind of guide development to be the way you want it to be, I think they’re workable.”
Two conservation districts exist in Boise. To some degree, they are examples of how and how not to use the 16-year-old law that allows them.
The oldest district lies between Franklin, Fort, 17th and 4th streets. It was established in 2001 by neighbors who became alarmed at the demolition of historic homes in the Near North End, Simmons said. The galvanizing moment came when Cathedral of the Rockies, also known as the First United Methodist Church, tore down all of the houses between Fort, Hays, 11th and 12th streets, planning to turn that city block into a parking lot.
The district’s rules prohibit new parking lots of greater than 2,500 square feet unless they are for new residential space or an existing use. A new parking garage would be allowed in the district “provided that it is designed to blend with the predominant architectural theme of the surrounding area and that it includes a significant residential component.” The district encourages continued residential use of existing homes and allows them to be remodeled as apartments or offices.
For the most part, Simmons said, the conservation overlay has done what it was designed to do. Historic homes have been preserved and no new parking lots have been developed, he said. Even the Cathedral of the Rockies only uses the southwest corner of the lot it cleared for parking. A community garden occupies much of the rest.
Boise’s second conservation district has been less successful, Simmons said.
Established in the mid-2000s, it was meant to preserve parking spaces for existing businesses in Hyde Park, many of them restaurants or retail shops. Some of those businesses no longer exist, Simmons said, and the district isn’t really relevant.
“It was overly complicated,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s ever been used very much. And I don’t think it’s had much effect.”
To establish a conservation overlay, the owners of all property inside and within its proposed boundaries must be notified.
Property owners decide the district’s contours and which uses, building types or design features are allowed. The law doesn’t specify how many affected property owners must agree on these details, but Simmons said the city likely would not approve a district that faces significant opposition within its boundaries.
A district’s rules should work toward realizing goals established in Boise’s comprehensive plan, such as preserving historic buildings and open space or fostering pleasant walking and biking corridors, Simmons said. The City Council must approve the a district, making it part of city law.
The West Downtown Neighborhood Association’s board wishes it had done all this before the CVS application was filed, association President Nicole Windsor said.
The application calls for the removal of the Arcade Building, which houses 23 apartments, and three houses. The loss of housing close to Downtown conflicts with the city’s goal of encouraging residences within walking and biking distance of services like the Albertsons grocery store at 16th and State or the shops Downtown.
Now that the city has received an application, a new conservation district can’t stop the CVS project, Simmons said. That’s because the laws on the books at the time of application are the ones that apply. An overlay could stop other projects from removing historic homes or adding new buildings that clash with the neighborhood, but it would not apply retroactively.
Windsor said the neighborhood is in the early stages of drafting a conservation overlay. It is still working on boundaries, which would mostly encompass residential corridors between 16th, 19th, Jefferson and Idaho streets.
“What we’re looking at is not limiting people from building garages or additions or vinyl windows,” Windsor said. “We’re looking more at protecting the residences that are there and just kind of preserving that character.”
MOBILIZED ON MOBLEY
The East End’s push for a conservation district will continue even though the initiative’s catalyst has fizzled.
Developer David Benoit withdrew his application Monday to build the two-story, 30-foot-wide home at 406 N. Mobley Drive. Neighbors said the home’s design would clash with the single-story, midcentury architecture that dominates the street.
Benoit recently bought two adjoining lots on Mobley. The northern lot, at 408 N. Mobley, has a single-story home that extends over the empty southern parcel’s lot line by 5 feet. Boise usually requires 5-foot setbacks from neighbors’ property lines for single-family homes. That means the house at 408 extends 10 feet farther south than it normally would if 406 had a house on it.
The planning department approved a permanent easement by which the owner of the lot at 406 allows 408’s encroachment. Simmons said that resolved the legal obstacle to building a home at 406. Neighbors cried foul. They said the easement essentially moves the lot line, making the southern lot smaller than Boise standards normally require. They said the city was inviting developers to use the same technique to shoehorn homes into places they don’t fit.
“Anyone that has two lots could, in theory, give the permanent easement and build as skinny a house as they want as long as they met the setback requirements,” said Mark Utting, who lives a few houses away from Benoit’s property.
Brittney Scigliano, who lives across the street from Benoit’s project, appealed to the Planning and Zoning Commission. A hearing was scheduled for Monday, but Benoit withdrew his application that morning. He told the Idaho Statesman on Friday that he wants to work with neighbors to resolve their concerns.
Utting said he and his neighbors are working on the outline of a conservation district. The boundaries would include both sides of Mobley Drive, Jantoni Drive, a connecting road, and Jefferson Street between Mobley and Coston Street.
Utting expects the process to establish the district to take about six months. Simmons said that is a realistic schedule.