Development on Star's annexed property will be a slow process
Star's growth doesn't have to be a disaster for traffic and air quality in the Treasure Valley.
Yes, more people will move there over the next decade and beyond, especially if a Boise developer's proposal to build more than 3,000 homes moves ahead. Many of them will work in Boise and Meridian. They'll commute, putting more cars on roads like Chinden Boulevard and State Street. Those cars will emit more pollutants, worsening air quality that's already pretty bad sometimes.
But there's a silver lining. Or at least there could be, said Scot Oliver, executive director of Idaho Smart Growth, a nonprofit that advocates for compact urban development with homes, jobs and commercial services in close proximity so that people can walk or bike among them instead of drive.
The sheer volume of cars on the road might finally force residents across the valley to re-evaluate their transportation habits, Oliver said. Instead of relying solely on cars, they might push authorities to provide better mass transit options, such as bus-only lanes on State Street.
Eventually, Oliver said, Star will have enough people to warrant more commerce — stores, restaurants, even office buildings. Those services and jobs should reduce the amount of driving that people who live in Star must do.
Niles Nordquist, an artist who lives in Star's Hillsdale Estates subdivision, thinks commercial development and better public transportation options could ease the traffic increases in his town, whose main street, State Highway 44, already bogs down with cars traveling between Boise and Middleton or Emmett.
"Anything you can do to reduce the traffic loads for everybody in this area is going to be important," Nordquist said.
On Tuesday, the Star City Council approved the annexation of 1,554 acres of mostly farmland, increasing the city's land mass by more than 35 percent. Most of the land lies north of Purple Sage Road between State Highway 16 and Kingsbury Road, its eastern border.
Dick Phillips, whose company Willowbrook Development owns the property, plans to build more than 3,000 homes there eventually, That likely would add more than 7,000 people to the city's population, estimated at 8,375 in 2016.Phillips' plan alarmed many Star residents, Nordquist included. Dozens of them spoke against it Tuesday at a public hearing on the annexation, just before the council voted.
Nordquist and others implored the council to slow down and finish an update of the city's comprehensive plan, making sure that Phillips' project fit the vision in that plan. Many of the same people worried about traffic, disruption of wildlife and compromised water quality.
The homes are unlikely to be built soon. Phillips' representative, former Star Mayor Nathan Mitchell, said the developer might not break ground on the first house for five years. Completion of the project likely will take decades.
Phillips hasn't set a price range for the homes, Mitchell said. "Asking me what a house is going to be worth in five years — I'm just not that smart," he said.
Phillips also developed Hillsdale Estates, another Star subdivision. The median price of homes sold there was $406,000 in 2017, according to BuildIdaho.com, a home-search service.
And although the council authorized two houses per acre, a low density, the project won't be a huge field of single-family homes on half-acre lots, Mitchell said. Instead, Phillips likely will cluster homes where it makes sense, leaving room for big pieces of open space and a few homes on large lots of two acres or more.
Some of those clustered homes could be apartments or condominiums.
Those ideas are in line with Idaho Smart Growth's principles. The preservation of open space and — especially in Idaho — farmland is part of the reason Smart Growth advocates like compact development with diverse uses located inside a half-mile radius.
"When somebody is making an effort to mix uses, mix affordability, mix products, cluster where appropriate — those are all things we'd like to see more of," Oliver said. "And it's not just preserving space where it is, but creating new common open space within the growing community."
Mitchell said Phillips will design lots for homes on two acres or less so that no existing home has more than one neighbor in the new project.
The project will chew up a lot of high-value farm ground, though. Much of the acreage has been used for years to grow corn, wheat, potatoes, alfalfa and other crops. That's a growing concern around the Treasure Valley, especially among people who want to see people here eat more locally grown food.
Following its normal practice, Idaho Smart Growth hasn't taken a stance on Phillips' 1,500-acre project in Star. Neither has the city of Boise, whose leaders typically adhere to the Smart Growth philosophy.
In the past, though, Boise has opposed big projects on its outskirts, worried that people who live there will commute to jobs in Boise and overburden roads.
Mitchell said he's sensitive to those concerns.
Before breaking ground, Mitchell said, Phillips will commission a traffic impact study to assess needs for new roads and the capacity of existing ones, like Purple Sage, Deep Canyon Drive, Blessinger Road and Can-Ada Road. Phillips will widen roads to keep them operating reasonably as traffic from the new homes strains capacity, he said.
As the project matures, Mitchell said, the developer will consider adding commercial centers where they make sense.
"Right now, the people who live at Purple Sage and Kingsbury, or whatever, have to drive at least to Star or Middleton to get a gallon of milk," he said. "If they can get a gallon of milk on that corner, then we've prevented somebody from having to drive 10 miles round trip. It reduces the overall vehicle miles traveled in the valley. It's better for our air. It's better for our roads. It's better for a lot of things."
'This town is not going to be the same'
Nordquist also thinks multifamily housing is good for Star, but he wants it close to commercial centers and public transportation routes so that people who live in it can access the services they need without driving.
"Multifamily development can be a positive attribute to any community because it gives you a cross-section of people," Nordquist said. "That's healthy. That doesn't isolate the demographics of your population."
But like many of his fellow Star residents, Nordquist wants city leaders to slow down and work out a thorough update to the city's comprehensive plan before approving big developments like Phillips'. He said the city should obtain public input and formulate the plan around the values residents express.
That's already happening, Mayor Chad Bell said. The city has already held two public events — and invited more than 6,200 residents — to hear comments on the update of its plan, Bell said. At least two town hall-style sessions where people can comment will take place between now and July 24, he said.
Bell expects the update process to continue at least through the end of the year.
Personally, Phillips would like to see a vision for Star that combines the best of Meridian's commercial corridors with neighborhoods like Eagle's, though perhaps more dense. Ultimately, he said, the mayor and City Council need to take on an unpopular and politically risky task: preparing residents for the inevitability of growth.
"It's coming their way. This town is not going to be the same 20 years from now," Nordquist said. "I foresee that this can be a very well done expansion of Star, or it can be an unmitigated disaster."