The Idaho Department of Environment Quality has become an unexpected hero to the people trying to preserve the most closely watched 12-acre lot around Boise.
Even Republicans are praising the agency, though its mission combines two elements that frequently draw GOP disdain: government and environmental regulations.
“They’re very modest about their role, but we couldn’t have done it without them,” said Judy Peavey-Derr, a member of the fundraising committee for the Idaho Foundation for Parks and Lands and a Republican who has held a variety of elected positions throughout her career.
The foundation has raised almost enough money for the purchase of 12 acres west of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s amphitheater in Boise’s East End. Larry Leasure, a developer who’s helping raise money, joined Peavey-Derr in praising the DEQ.
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“They have just stepped up to the plate,” Leasure said. “They’ve moved it forward quickly. It could’ve been hung out there for another three or four years.”
What did the department do to earn such appreciation? It removed a big obstacle, one that makes developers lose sleep: biosolids.
First, the department paid to test two dried-up sewer lagoons on the property that treated sewage from the Golden Dawn Estates, a mobile home park located just north of East Warm Springs Avenue. It developed a cleanup plan. Then, it paid to remove the solid remains from the lagoons and dump them at Ada County’s landfill.
In total, those items cost the department $177,000, said Eric Traynor, who manages the Department of Environmental Quality’s brownfields program, which assesses and rehabilitates property blighted by contamination. (See a list of success stories for the DEQ’s brownfields program).
Traynor said the money came from a federal grant that brings up to $1 million — less in recent years — annually to the department for this kind of project.
“If the foundation were forced to spend that money, they would be $300,000 short,” he said.
At 8 p.m. on July 1, 1998, the Idaho Shakespeare Festival opened its amphitheater in East Boise.
The performance that night was Charlie Fee’s Beatles-infused production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It was a huge success. So was the amphitheater. Built with millions of dollars from thousands of donors, it was the realization of Boise theater lovers’ dreams and is still a source of intense community pride.
The venue had an ideal location. A little south of Warm Springs Avenue and east of Lysted Avenue, it was a short drive from Downtown but remote enough to feel apart from the city.
2,800 Number of donors who gave time and money to support the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s push to open its East Boise amphitheater in 1998
Almost immediately after the opening, ISF leaders began talking to David and Ann Triplett about buying the 12-acre lot the Tripletts owned just west of the new venue. An informal agreement emerged: The festival would buy the land for an unspecified price at some unspecified date, perhaps around 2018.
The Shakespeare Festival enjoyed a good relationship with the Tripletts. The landowners even let the group pump sewage from the amphitheater into the lagoons.
Efforts to contact the Tripletts for comment on this story were unsuccessful.
In 2013, developer Jim Conger applied for permits to build more than 40 homes and a cluster of storage buildings on the Tripletts’ land.
The Shakespeare people panicked. They predicted people who lived in the proposed houses would complain about noise from the performances and try to stop them. They complained that sounds from the housing complex — lawnmowers, backyard parties, etc. — would diminish enjoyment of the performances. Some worried about the development’s effect on the Barber Pool Conservation Area, 700 acres south of the property in question that’s host to more than 200 species of wildlife.
Triplett offered to sell the land to the Shakespeare Festival, which couldn’t come up with the money.
Thousands of people who attended Shakespeare performances that summer signed a petition against Conger’s project. Dozens testified at a September 2013 Planning and Zoning hearing on it. The Planning and Zoning Commission denied the application. The Tripletts appealed that decision to the City Council.
The relationship between the Tripletts and the Shakespeare Festival soured. David Triplett felt betrayed. The people he’d helped save money were the same ones opposing a project that would allow him to sell the land.
In January 2014, the City Council rejected Conger’s project after a seven-hour public hearing at which dozens of worried Shakespeare fans testified. That decision reset the conversation, with three sides trying to work out a solution that was acceptable to everyone.
On one side of this conversation were the Tripletts, who needed money. Conger, the developer who’d spent a lot of his own money on planning, applying and otherwise pushing his project, was on another side. Then there were the Shakespeare people, who’d proved they could flex their muscle at City Hall but were on notice that development was coming to the Tripletts’ land if they didn’t act fast to preserve it.
Into the middle stepped the Idaho Foundation for Parks and Lands. Less than two months after the City Council decision, the foundation announced it would buy the Tripletts’ land. The price was a little more than $1 million, some of which would compensate Conger for his time and sunk costs.
The foundation set about raising money. The final payment was due by the end of last year, but the foundation couldn’t meet that deadline. The Tripletts granted the foundation an extension. Leasure and Peavey-Derr said the Tripletts forgave an agreed-upon interest payment.
The new deadline for the last payment is Dec. 31.
We obviously would have to go back and visit with the landowners. ... But we’re not looking for an extension at this point. We want to get it done.
Larry Leasure on what happens if the Idaho Foundation for Parks and Lands can’t meet the deadline for its last payment
Over the past year-and-a-half, Peavey-Derr said, almost 400 people have donated money for the purchase of the Tripletts’ 12 acres.
Meanwhile, the foundation has been working on plans for cleaning up and using the Tripletts’ land.
This is how the Department of Environmental Quality got involved. Traynor said his group assesses 12 to 15 brownfield sites a year. He tries to actually clean up at least one site every year.
Traynor said his team was especially excited about this project, partly because so many government and private groups were willing to pitch in to solve the problem, but also “because of the community benefit that’s going to happen with what the foundation’s going to do with that land.”
The cleanup was needed. The 2007 assessment of the lagoons found no leaching of contamination into the nearby groundwater or the river, Traynor said. But there were plenty of contaminants, including caffeine, hormones and antibiotics, that couldn’t be left in place if people were going to use the land.
We found stuff. I mean, we found things that you would expect to find people flushing down their toilets and going down their drains.
Eric Traynor, Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, on testing the old sewage lagoons
Traynor’s brownfields crew typically works up statistics to show the economic benefit of the cleanup work they’re doing. He admitted that will be harder with this one because community benefit is harder to quantify than economic benefit.
It’s still a great success story, he said.
“This is going to be one of our best ones to date, for sure,” Traynor said.
The last load of biosolids was trucked out of the lagoons on Sept. 30, Peavey-Derr said.
Plans for what to do with the land are still in the works, but Leasure said most of it will be kept as undeveloped open space that complements the amphitheater’s natural surroundings. Cottonwoods and other native things will be planted, he said.
Some of the land might be dedicated as a viewing area for Barber Pool. Leasure expects a small section of the Boise River Greenbelt to cut through the property.
Over the next several months, the foundation plans to host public and stakeholder meetings to discuss possible designs. Peavey-Derr hopes a contractor breaks ground on the project by summer. In a best-case scenario, she said, it would be done by the end of 2016.
Statesman reporter Dana Oland contributed to this report.
How to donate
The Idaho Foundation for Parks and Lands has received pledges for donations totaling $55,000 — if it can raise an equal match from somewhere else. Visit IdahoStatesman.com for directions on how to donate money.