What a difference a day and an audience make for a mayor struggling with one of the most critical issues facing his city in decades.
On Tuesday, in front of the Downtown Boise Association, a business group, Mayor Dave Bieter was head cheerleader for his city and its residents, the “proud,” the “happy,” the “authentic.” Appetizers were nibbled. Wine was sipped. “We’re really,” he said, “pushing against a tide of sameness” to protect what makes this fast-growing city special.
On Wednesday, in drafty Fire Station No. 4, facing dozens of Boiseans worried about growth at the city’s first town hall meeting in recent memory, Bieter was a scold. He lectured the crowd about the limits of government, the benefits of growth and how unrealistic many Boiseans are to expect their metropolis to retain any rural flavor.
“To those of you in the northwest and in other parts of town,” Bieter said, “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.
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“My grandfather was a sheepherder,” said Bieter, a descendant of Basque immigrants, “but he didn’t herd sheep in town. That’s just the way it is. I think the country is Marsing and Homedale and parts of Canyon County. It isn’t on Hill Road.”
Bieter was making a not-so-subtle reference to a controversy that fueled many of the audience members’ ire and brought some of them out an hour before the meeting to protest along Ustick Road. Outside of the fire station, they politely waved signs that read “#OldHillRoad NO REZONE” and “BOISE’S RURAL LANDSCAPE is being vanquished.”
Inside the station they were less direct, because the town hall’s rules of engagement prohibited any discussion of pending projects, such as Prominence, a 307-unit subdivision planned for their neighborhood.
Trilogy Development wants to put a mix of townhouses, apartments and single-family homes on 38 acres bisected by West Hill Road Parkway and roughly bordered by Bogart Lane to the east and Duncan Lane to the west. 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 Richard Llewellyn’s family since the 1950s. Llewellyn is president of the North West Neighborhood Association. He opposes the development, and he was the first speaker to address the mayor and City Council.
The event was planned as an opportunity for a wide range of Boise residents to tell city government what was on their minds in three minutes – no more. But it became a referendum on growth.
Twenty-one people stepped up to the microphone. Twelve were troubled by the pace of growth in the city. Two were enthusiastically pro-growth. Two wanted more transparency in the development process. One made a pitch for more open space. Another lamented the dearth of affordable housing.
Only three people brought up issues unrelated to growth. An older woman made a pitch for longer hours in the city’s off-leash parks so senior citizens can walk their dogs when it’s warm. A 30-something man lambasted businesses with drive-thru windows. A woman stressed the need for a higher environmental consciousness: more recycling, more composting, more community gardens.
Llewellyn acknowledged that Boise is in the middle of a real estate boom and an affordable-housing crisis, creating a demand that is “a national problem, and we cannot meet it or solve it locally. One hard question is how to create truly affordable housing, and another question is how to protect a limited resource during the boom.”
He said he agreed that a ban on building on so-called greenfields like the ones in his neighborhood is not the answer, “but I strongly suggest that any development on farmland within Boise should proceed in a manner that does not obliterate our agricultural heritage.”
Diane Stearns, who lives off State Street, was more direct.
“Everything has just gone crazy,” she told Bieter and the council. “I know that business wants to expand and bring more people in, but it was kind of nice years ago ... I know you want to move forward, and people think it’s so wonderful to be the No. 1 city in the U.S. But there were some kind of nice things about not being the No. 1 city.”
One of the pro-growth speakers was Bill Connors, president and chief executive of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce. Connors brought a different sobering message. He was representing, he said, the 2,000 or so businesses that belong to the chamber and the 200,000 or so people those businesses employ.
He said he talks to chief executives and chambers of commerce throughout the nation, and “right now they’re wondering what Boise is doing and doing so well.”
“Right now, we are the most envied city in the United States,” Connors said. “Part of my message is: Don’t close the door on all growth. Don’t close the door on the diversity of people that are moving to this place and making us a richer place.”
Don’t forget, he told the council, that the business community is behind you. And that “it is the business community that helps build this tax base and allows us to do some of the great things that you are doing, building parks and libraries and sports parks.”
Like every other speaker to address the council, Connors, Llewellyn and Stearns thanked the city government for listening. Bieter and the council returned the compliment. They talked about “Boise nice” and congratulated the 70 or so attendees for their civility and kindness in the middle of controversy.
“You carried yourself impeccably tonight,” Bieter said, “and I can’t tell you how important that is.”
But you all have to realize something, the mayor continued.
“I know at some level you all know this,” he said. “We don’t have any control on people that want to come here. We don’t mobilize at the borders to try to keep them out, as much as you might want us to do that. ... There’s a constitutional notion of interstate commerce and the ability to move between states, and we don’t have any control over that.”
The city also can’t control what people do with their private property, nor should it, he said.
He launched into a story about a family he knew while growing up. The parents farmed five acres on Hill Road. They lived into their 90s. They raised 12 kids, and now the kids want to sell the property and put their own children through college.
“Are we as a city, who are we to tell them, ‘Sorry, you caught us at the wrong time, and you have to leave that the way it is,” Bieter said. “It’s just not the way this works.”
He talked about the days when Downtown Boise was compared – not favorably – with downtown Beirut. He reminisced about a popular t-shirt back in the day. It said, “Boise at Night” underneath a big black rectangle.
The audience laughed.
“It wasn’t that funny,” Bieter responded. “But that’s the way it was, and it’s not that way now. It’s so much better. There are so many good things going on.”
The reason? Growth.
“There’s many, many good things that growth has brought us,” he said. “I know you don’t see that now. You may not see it for a while. But I’m here to tell you, I’m an optimist. ... We will over time, with a lot of work by all of us, get this right.”