Developer's plan for a small subdivision sparks fight over growth in Boise's City Hall

Marisa Keith, one of the main opponents of the proposed Sabana subdivision, testified Tuesday before the Boise City Council, saying the development would create more traffic and interfere with rural life. Here, she stands at the boundary of her own five acres. The empty swath of green behind her is where 11 townhouses, 11 single-family homes and three duplexes have been planned.
Marisa Keith, one of the main opponents of the proposed Sabana subdivision, testified Tuesday before the Boise City Council, saying the development would create more traffic and interfere with rural life. Here, she stands at the boundary of her own five acres. The empty swath of green behind her is where 11 townhouses, 11 single-family homes and three duplexes have been planned.

The prickly conversation about how Boise should handle growth took a turn Monday night, when the city's Planning & Zoning Commission voted down a small subdivision proposed just beyond Boise's southwestern edge.

Three of the four members present gave the subdivision, named Sabana, a thumbs down. Not just because they objected to the Corey Barton Homes/Trilogy development itself, but also because they disagreed with the City Council's very vision for a swath of unincorporated Ada County that includes the site and that Boise wants to annex.

The conflict within city government highlights a fundamental clash of needs and interests in the burgeoning capital of the fastest growing state in the U.S. Mayor David Bieter believes that the way to build the city out of its current housing crisis is with dense development in what empty land remains.

Much of that land is on Boise’s fringes, in areas that residents consider rural and worthy of protection. The map that guides Boise’s future development designates some controversial parcels as so-called compact development, which would allow for as many as 15 dwellings per acre, denser than any suburban subdivision, according to the city's comprehensive plan.

The people who live in the area along Victory Road west of Cloverdale Road aren’t having it. But Boise's population has grown bymore than 26,000people since 2010, and officials say the city needs 1,000 new housing units a year just to keep up. And even as she opposed Sabana, Planning & Zoning Commission Co-Chair Jennifer Stevens acknowledged “the housing crisis that we have in front of us right now and the huge number of residents coming in here.”

As she moved to deny approval, Stevens pointed to the comprehensive plan, called Blueprint Boise, and noted that “we are told as commissioners that we are not allowed to rely strictly upon the plan for decisions that we make."

“And yet," she added,"the only thing that I see that actually is directly supportive of this compact designation is the one little piece of color on a map that nobody seems to understand where it comes from, and everybody seems to agree is incompatible and inconsistent with every other color on that map that immediately surrounds it and is adjacent to it.”

But the problem with the commission’s decision, said Scot Oliver, executive director of Idaho Smart Growth, is not just what it means for the 4.79 acres that Corey Barton Homes wants to develop. The parcel is bordered on three sides by farmland, and Oliver acknowledged in an interview that the spot might not be the most “logical” location.

“It just seems unfortunate that here is the biggest home builder in the state who’s trying to do the type of product that we need,” Oliver said. “How else are these builders going to get the skills to build needed town homes and multifamily units?”

The problem has popped up elsewhere in Boise too. Trilogy Development, a Boise company owned by John A. Laude Sr., is also working on a 307-unit development in Northwest Boise on a 38-acre parcel where farmland meets Foothills. The North West Neighborhood Association and many area residents have organized opposition.

At a town hall meeting in April, Bieter told the audience: “To those of you in the northwest and in other parts of town, you don’t live in the country. I mean that sincerely. We’re in the city. You might have gotten used to a little more rural kind of [life]. It’s just not that way."

At Sabana, Corey Barton Homes wants to build 11 single family homes, 11 townhouses and three duplexes for a total of 28 dwellings. The land is in Boise’s “area of impact,” which means that the City of Trees, according to state law, “can reasonably be expected” to annex it from Ada County in the future.

CBH wants that to happen now. But Sabana’s road to reality has been rocky.

Developers are required to hold a community meeting early in Boise's approval process. Then they go before the Ada County Highway District, the city Planning & Zoning Commission and finally, the Boise City Council.

When Jane Suggs, a planner with WH Pacific who is representing CBH, met with neighbors in the area in October, Sabana was proposed to have 33 housing units, including a number of fourplexes. Community members pushed back. By the time Suggs presented the plan to ACHD, the fourplexes were gone, replaced by townhouses, and the number of units had shrunk to 28.

ACHD commissioners denied the application in January, in part because Victory Road is already over capacity during peak traffic hours. After the developer agreed to make a series of road improvements, ACHD approved the plan at the end of March.

Then in April, Suggs went before the Planning & Zoning Commission. The commission questioned why anyone would ask for compact development in a neighborhood with such rural flair. It sent Suggs away with a specific request: Come back on June 4 with a plan that has even fewer housing units, and we’ll talk.

Suggs came back, but with the same plan. The same support from city planners. And the same argument: “We do meet the comprehensive plan. We do meet all the requirements of the subdivision code, and we meet the necessary findings for a planned development unit.”

To the half-dozen residents of the area who testified Monday, just meeting those requirements, just being in an “arbitrarily” designated area on a map, was not a good enough reason to disrupt a way of life they chose years ago and hope will exist far into the future.

“We are not against redevelopment,” said Suzie Steiner, who lives across the street from the proposed development. But “this area is a gem. It is a very small area of rural life. Most of my neighbors have animals. We have horses and chickens and cows and goats and emus. I have quails that just had babies in my front yard. Several of us have bees. Several have semi-free range sheep. We want the ability to have this kind of lifestyle.”

As Suggs pointed out, the area in question has not been designated as agricultural by the city. The comprehensive plan is an important document, she said, an integral part of how Boise talks about what happens in the future and what the city should look like in the decades to come.

“It’s been clear from the mayor’s office and from his spokesmen that we are talking about one of the fastest-growing cities in the country,” Suggs countered. “To make that happen and provide housing for people, we need to develop according to the comprehensive plan.”

Shortly after the Planning & Zoning Commission put Sabana on hold in April, Hal Simmons, the city planning director, talked to the Statesman about the “compromises made day in and day out about what gets built.”

“It doesn’t help a whole lot to look at developed neighborhoods and put compact on them when there’s not a whole lot of opportunity for change,” Simmons said. “Where you have opportunity for change, and you have vacant land, and you have major arterials that are in close proximity and you know you’re going to be running expanded bus service, that’s where you put your compact designations.

“So that’s a target,” he said. “That’s a goal.”

Jaap Vos, director of the Urban Design Center at the University of Idaho, said he likes density and he understands Simmons’ thinking and the decisions that go into making a complex document like Blueprint Boise. But he’s not so sure the Sabana site should be home to so many houses..

Blueprint Boise is “well written” and does a good job of explaining the city’s goals. But those goals were last updated in 2011, Vos notes. They are being translated into action today, and their impact is no longer in some hazy future.

“All of a sudden, the question comes, ‘Is this what we want?’ ” Vos said. “Now there are real properties involved. And now you get controversy.”

In an effort to address the increasingly heated climate around growth, Bieter and the City Council have scheduled a series of workshops to gather Boiseans' opinions and help craft a path forward. Two are scheduled so far, in late June.

Suggs said Monday night that she was disappointed by the commission’s decision and plans to appeal to the City Council.

“The process continues,” said city spokesman Mike Journee. “There will be more opportunity for input. There will be an opportunity for the City Council to decide whether Planning and Zoning made an error.”

Opponents of Sabana wasted little time celebrating. They vowed Monday to show up every step of the way. They reiterated their concerns about Sabana’s proposed 28 units. And they reflected, briefly, about their battle so far.

Said Steiner: “This has been a really interesting learning opportunity.”

Maria L. La Ganga: 208-377-6431, @marialaganga