Mark Hoffman bought a four-wheel-drive Toyota Highlander so he can go off-road and escape a wildfire should the one road in and out of his neighborhood be blocked. He keeps a pair of wire cutters under the driver’s seat so he can cut through metal fences.
A retired school teacher and administrator, Hoffman lived through a 1996 fire in Alaska that burned almost 40,000 acres north of Anchorage. He lived in Prescott, Arizona, in 2013 when the nearby Yarnell Hill wildfire killed 19 firefighters.
“I’m pretty sensitive to the fire danger,” Hoffman said.
He’s not the only one. Wildfire also worries Hoffman’s neighbors off Columbia Road east of the Micron Technology headquarters in Boise’s southeast corner — an area dominated by desert brush. Those worries contributed to the city’s decision to halt, at least temporarily, developer Jim Conger’s plan to have the city annex 110 acres in the area so he can build 430 houses there. Fire experts said relying on Columbia Road as the only way in and out of Conger’s subdivision would be too risky.
Conger’s project put a spotlight on development challenges on the Columbia Bench, the area roughly bordered by Interstate 84 on the west, Gowen Road on the north, the cliffs above the Boise River on the east, and a straight line stretching east from I-84’s Eisenman Road-Memory Road interchange on the south. Most of the land is outside city limits but inside Boise’s area of impact, meaning its annexation is expected.
For years, the city has looked to Columbia Bench as one of its next major swaths of land for development. Built to the density of Boise’s Central Bench, the area could someday be home to more than 30,000 people, City Councilwoman Elaine Clegg said. She and other city leaders want to move past the piecemeal annexation and planning that has occurred there so far and develop a long-term, detailed plan for roads, housing, commercial space, parks, schools and pathways.
“One would hope, over time, that it would develop not homogeneously but really heterogeneously, with all kinds of income levels and types of housing, types of retail,” Clegg said. “I would foresee at least one … relatively large, community-serving retail-commercial center and a number of smaller ones.”
The beginnings of a plan are in place already. Over the past couple of years, Boise has worked to create a rough outline for developing Columbia Bench.
Last March, the city published “East Columbia Interim Development Guidelines,” which list goals like “environmental stewardship,” “orderly development” and “efficient and connected multimodal roadway system” — concepts City Hall tries to apply everywhere. It lists few objectives specific to Columbia Bench’s future. Boise Planning Director Hal Simmons said the city needs to fill in details.
“What we don’t have is total agreement as to the distribution of uses, where commercial and activity centers ought to be,” Simmons said.
Three subdivisions are being completed along Columbia Road. They include Painted Ridge, about 2 miles east of I-84 on the south side of Columbia, where Hoffman lives; Sunny Ridge, a few hundred feet east of Painted Ridge; and Bonneville Pointe, north of Columbia and just east of Sunny Ridge.
They make up a tiny percentage of Columbia Bench, yet residents already complain about traffic and safety.
One key will be to get agreement from Micron, Simplot and members of the Simplot family, which together own about 6 square miles in the area; the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, which wants to protect wildlife; Idaho Power, which owns a major transmission corridor through the area; and Ada County, which still governs most of the land because it is outside city limits.
“The City Council has been increasingly concerned that we’ve sort of been nickel-and-diming the area with these little subdivisions without getting a plan for the whole area adopted,” Simmons said. “We do believe that, at some point, it will become a priority to both Micron or the Simplots to work with the city on that.”
Clegg said it might make sense for Boise to write a master plan to establish general expectations, such as the number of homes in Columbia Bench and how much commercial, open and recreational space will be there. More specific plans for portions of the area could map future locations of those amenities, anticipate zoning classifications and predict when the amenities will be built. Today, most of the land is zoned for low-density development.
Hoffman welcomes the idea of long-term planning. So do his Painted Ridge neighbors Deedra Pearson and Margaret Bushee.
Pearson said new roads are her top priority as new homes go up. Columbia Road, a two-lane country road, is a popular jogging and bicycling route for Micron employees, and people who drive it worry about hitting the employees with their cars.
Pearson also would like an escape route or two in a wildfire. Her worst-case scenario is that “we have 800 houses out here and it’s one road in and out.”
Bushee said Boise could learn from Austin, Texas, where she grew up “when it looked a lot like Boise.”
“It’s a university town, river going through it,” she said. “Nobody really knew much about it. It’s the state capital. Same kind of vibe. … It had tremendous growth. They didn’t plan for it well. The traffic is crazy now.”
Everyone agrees Columbia Bench needs more roads before much more development occurs — at least along Columbia Road. But roads are expensive.
Typically, developers pay to build the ones that circulate traffic inside their subdivisions and connect to the larger transportation network. They then give the roads to the Ada County Highway District, which controls and maintains them. That cost can put the original developer at a disadvantage, because competitors might save money by using some of the same roads to access later projects.
Clegg said it might be possible for the highway district to build a skeleton transportation network on its own dime and recover its costs through impact fees that developers pay. That could expedite the construction of roads and spread their cost more fairly. For example, the district used impact fees to recover some of its cost for the East ParkCenter Bridge, which connects Harris Ranch to the rest of Boise.
“As a planner, I can’t see my way clear to approve really any further development unless we figure out something along those lines,” Clegg said.
Highway district commissioner Paul Woods said the same end might be achieved through other means, such as additional property taxes or voter-approved debt.
“How do we advance the improvement of the infrastructure and not have it lag by 20 years?” Woods said. “We’re definitely open to having that conversation.”
THE BOWN STANDARD
In separate interviews, Hoffman and Bushee brought up Bown Crossing, a multi-use development in Southeast Boise that includes multifamily housing, office space, restaurants and a branch library, as the kind of activity center that Columbia Bench deserves. Bushee said she’d like to have something like that within walking distance of her home.
“That’s a good example of well-done commercial [development],” she said. “It looks really attractive. It looks like a little village. And it adds to the feeling of the neighborhood.”
Hoffman worries Columbia Bench will become more like neighborhoods in West Boise or southwest of the city that have broad, unbroken tracts of housing and few homes within walking distance of a park or commercial services.
“Now where would you rather live?” he said. “Would you rather live in Hyde Park? Would you rather live in Harris Ranch? Would you rather live in Bown Crossing? Or would you rather live in West Boise off Maple Grove? Simple question for me.”
ODDS AND OBSTACLES
Projects like Painted Ridge, Sunny Ridge, Bonneville Pointe and Conger’s 430-home Rush Valley might stress out neighbors right now, but they could pressure Micron and Simplot to get involved with a plan for Columbia Bench, Clegg said. The two companies say they’re willing to talk.
Neither the J.R. Simplot Co. nor the Simplot family has plans to develop their roughly 2,000 acres in Columbia Bench, spokesman Ken Dey said.
“We’re not going to commit to anything, but we’re happy to have a conversation with the city,” Dey said.
A Micron spokesman said the chipmaker hasn’t “made any announcements on plans for further development of the campus at this point.”
“Micron is committed to working with the city of Boise on development planning that addresses infrastructure, transportation and other needs to ensure that Boise continues to be a great place to live and work for Micron team members,” spokesman Marc Musgrove said in an email.
Clegg said she hopes to work toward an agreement between the city, Micron, Simplot and other stakeholders over the next year. In 2019, she said, she’d like to see at least part of a new plan committed to paper.
“I don’t have any illusions that you’re going to walk in and say, ‘OK, we all agree that this is the direction we should go or not go,’ ” Clegg said. “I think it’ll take some time to make sure all the players can agree on a direction first.”