On Dec. 1, a spread of snacks and water bottles greeted people stepping off the elevator just outside Boise City Hall’s third-floor meeting room.
The refreshments were a gift from people who live in the Boise Foothills’ Highlands neighborhood. They were for anyone attending the City Council’s hearing that night on Highlands Cove, developer Dave Yorgason’s 60-home project in the neighborhood.
People who work at City Hall said they’d never seen a group of neighbors do that.
There didn’t appear to be a cynical calculation behind the food and drinks. The people who bought them simply knew the meeting would be a long one — it lasted more than five hours — and they wanted to make sure their neighbors were comfortable enough to stay till the end.
If their goal was to turn council members’ opinions against the project, it didn’t work. A few minutes before midnight, the council approved Highlands Cove over the complaints of dozens of neighbors who worry the subdivision will worsen already bad traffic.
Still, the gesture highlighted one of the challenges developers face as they plan projects in the Boise Foothills. The neighbors they want to build next to are almost always better organized, better educated and richer than the people who fight standard subdivisions.
Those kinds of people aren’t afraid of City Hall. They can turn out big crowds and make persuasive arguments that play well with decision makers and the media.
“You’ve got a sophisticated community there,” said Jim Hunter, co-founder of Boise Hunter Homes, the company that’s building the first 105 homes of Harris Ranch North, a subdivision in the hills just north of Barber Drive. “You’ve got to understand them. You’ve got to embrace them. You’ve got to be a good corporate citizen. You need to do all three.”
In the case of Highlands Cove, a group of neighbors formed a nonprofit corporation to resist Yorgason’s project. The same nonprofit has been taking donations over the past couple of months to pay lawyers to fight the City Council’s approval of Highlands Cove.
That kind of thing doesn’t happen in the Vista or Central Bench neighborhoods. But it was no surprise to Yorgason, who said he built the cost of lawyers into his budget.
“Because I knew this was coming from the beginning,” he said of the looming court battle.
SHADES OF 2005
Like a lot of the economy, sales and construction of Foothills homes took a hit in the Great Recession.
High-end homes normally sell more slowly in turbulent times because buyers are much more cautious, said Kristin Myers, a buyers specialist for Lysi Bishop Real Estate in Boise.
Developers also struggled to finance projects during the downturn, Hunter said.
Those two factors combined to slow Foothills projects between 2006 and about 2012. Now that the economy has rebounded, both buyers and developers are more aggressive.
Myers said Foothills housing inventory is so scarce that buyers are falling back into prerecession habits. They’re getting into bidding wars on houses, she said, often pushing sale prices tens of thousands of dollars higher than the asking prices. A lot of these buyers are out-of-staters.
“We’re just letting people know, Hey, if you have to sell in the next five years, you could definitely be selling at a loss,” Myers said. “Just know that you’re probably overpaying for this. But if you’re going to be in the home long term, those property values should recoup.”
Developers have responded to this demand. The city hasn’t compiled a comprehensive list of projects underway in the Foothills. But three projects — Harris Ranch North, Highlands Cove and The Reserve at Deer Valley, developer Larry Leasure’s 95-home project east of Pierce Park Lane and north of Hill Road — account for more than 250 Foothills homes in some phase of development and scheduled for completion between this year and next.
Almost every project in Boise attracts some kind of opposition. Foothills developments spark some of the most intense battles, and not just because the people who already live nearby are good at them.
The Foothills are a community asset. People who live all over the Treasure Valley use them for recreation, as do visitors. Even those who don’t venture into the hills enjoy the iconic skyline and mostly pristine, golden-brown backdrop they give the city in countless photographs and paintings. The public feels ownership of them.
Over the past 20 years, the city of Boise has made Foothills preservation a priority. The city passed a Foothills development plan in 1997, followed by an ordinance in 2000 that established restrictions, such as requiring open space to occupy certain percentages of new projects’ land mass.
In 2001, city residents passed a two-year serial levy that raised $10 million for preservation of Foothills land and recreation access. In November, with the original levy’s account balance dwindling, city residents passed another levy with a similar purpose.
Several people who opposed Harris Ranch North and Highlands Cove said their approval erodes the goal of the levies and Foothills ordinance.
Highlands Cove’s neighbors say they’ll ask a judge to overturn the City Council’s approval of the project, said Philippe Masser, who lives in the Highlands Neighborhood and has become its unofficial spokesman.
“We have lost confidence that we will get any appropriate modification of the project through the city,” Masser said. “We’re frustrated that we have to take this to judicial review to see that the ordinances and the policies are actually applied properly.”
Boise planning director Hal Simmons rejected the claim that approval of Highlands Cove and Harris Ranch North contradicted Boise’s broader Foothills preservation mission.
“There’s a perception that Foothills development is done,” Simmons said. “And the reality is it’s not. I mean, there’s no way the city can buy all the land up there.”
That perception became obvious when Boise Hunter Homes started work on Harris Ranch North. Many of the people who live just below the new development were shocked to learn they would soon have neighbors in the hills to the north.
People who’d followed the long-term plan for filling out Harris Ranch had a different take. They remembered a years-long public battle over the development in the early to mid-2000s that ended with a compromise in which the Harris family, who owned the property, agreed to greatly reduce the amount of Foothills land they would develop. Most of the people who went through that process didn’t vocally oppose Harris Ranch North.
“If you were involved heavily, you kind of knew the facts,” Hunter said. “If you weren’t involved, if you were on the periphery of it, it might have become a rumor that became a storyline that became indelible in some people’s minds.”
People who think Boise should stop or seriously limit Foothills development have a fair point, though.
Boise policies do put a premium on preservation.
Take Hammer Flat, which the city bought in 2010. A developer had planned to build 1,350 homes on 700 acres in the hills north of Idaho 21 between Harris Ranch and Lucky Peak Reservoir, setting off concern about the loss of valuable winter range for mule deer. The city later sold Hammer Flat to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, which manages it as a wildlife refuge.
That was a strong message from the city that the Foothills are to be preserved, not chopped into housing lots. Given the effort that went into delivering it, plus the passage of the Foothills law and levies, it’s understandable that people see hypocrisy in the city’s approval of so many recent projects.
Timing helps explain this apparent clash.
Highlands Cove and The Reserve at Deer Valley were rezoned for residential use before the Foothills ordinance took effect. That zoning designation decreases the City Council’s influence over the shape and density of development, Simmons said.
“Almost every project that’s under construction out there right now came in just before the ordinance was adopted,” Simmons said. “We’ve had very few projects come through under that ordinance, because it’s very limiting.”
Harris Ranch North was permitted as part of a larger planned community, the first of its kind in Boise, so its permitting was separated from the normal planning process.
Small pockets of Foothills development will continue indefinitely, Simmons said, but big projects such as the three going on right now will be rare because there just isn’t much Foothills land left inside city limits that’s zoned for residential development.
Hunter predicted developers will keep building in the Foothills for many years, but projects that toe the line between urban and rural — such as Harris Ranch North — will be increasingly scarce, he said.
“And he’s right,” Simmons said. “Part of the reason we’re seeing the demand all of a sudden like this is just because people are really trying to get at both — trying to get everything, which is a Foothills location close to Downtown.”