Take a trip into the Owyhees on Dean Hilde's airplane
From Dean Hilde’s perspective, an airstrip north of Table Rock would preserve that slice of the Boise Foothills, not diminish them, as his opponents claim.
Without a landing strip, Hilde argues, the property someday would become a row of mansions — exactly the kind of development Foothills preservationists fear.
“If I were looking at dollars, I’d line that thing with homes. I’m leaving it as it is,” he said. “I’m an idiot for doing this, but this is my dream, my vision.”
His opponents, the city of Boise and two conservation groups among them, think this is nonsense. To them, taking off and landing an airplane, even a small one, in the Foothills brings too many problems, including wildlife disturbance and fire risk, without adding any benefit.
The property is inside Boise’s area of impact, which means the city expects to annex it someday. If it did so, the land likely would receive an open space zoning designation meant for very low-density residential development. This zone does allow landing strips with conditional use permits.
But Boise planners are adamant that Hilde’s proposal is wrong for the Foothills. In a letter urging Ada County commissioners to deny Hilde’s application, they pointed out that Boise code prioritizes the natural environment of the Foothills, especially non-motorized recreation, habitat and their scenic value as a backdrop to the city.
“The citizens of Boise overwhelmingly approved a Foothills levy for the protection and preservation of the Foothills,” the letter reads. “A private airstrip is in conflict with all of those goals.”
Because the land is in Boise’s area of impact, the city is authorized to make recommendations on activity and development proposals. But Ada County commissioners have final authority. They are scheduled to hold a public hearing Wednesday on Hilde’s application.
There are no positive impacts associated with the proposed (airstrip); only negative impacts that directly contradict all of the values that Boise residents hold dear about the Foothills.
City of Boise letter appealing Foothills airstrip approval
At first glance, the land around Hilde’s proposed airstrip looks like the kind of property high-end developers drool over.
The ridge where he wants to take off and land his 1968 Piper Super Cub runs southeast-northwest a few hundred yards north of the intersection of Table Rock Road and Wild Horse Lane. It offers an almost unparalleled view: Bogus Basin to the north, Downtown Boise and the rest of the Treasure Valley to the west, the Table Rock cross and, on a clear day, the Owyhee Mountains to the south.
People pay millions for homes with lesser views.
But development of this property is unlikely to happen anytime soon. For the past 20 years or so, its owners have periodically searched for ways to develop it, city of Boise planning director Hal Simmons said. They always ran into the same problem: a lack of fire protection. The nearest Boise fire station, at the corner of Reserve Street and Mountain Cove Road, is several miles away — too far for a timely response, Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan said.
Even if development does occur, it likely will be nothing more than a handful of single-family homes on large lots. There aren’t enough residents in the area to warrant a new fire station, Simmons said, and the fire safety features planners expect for higher-density projects, such as an on-site water supply and multiple roads in and out of the area, aren’t in place.
The land is in what the county deems a rural preservation district, which allows one home per 40 acres. Changing that designation to allow more homes wouldn’t be unprecedented, but it would be unusual, particularly since water, sewer and other utilities aren’t readily available, Ada County Planning and Zoning Administrator Mark Perfect said.
Hilde, 55, was an Alaska bush pilot for most of his adult life.
He said he worked as a hunting guide there, spotted for fishing crews and picked up some government jobs. In Alaska, he said, pilots land on any piece of private ground that’s suitable and they have access to.
His move to Boise brought something of a culture shock. After living in the Foothills’ Terra Nativa development for a while, he moved to Wildhorse Ranch, a subdivision just east of the airstrip property, around 2010. He said he started taking off and landing his airplane near his house, never imagining it might be illegal.
Recently, he worked out a deal to buy the 149-acre lot where the airstrip ridge is located, as long as he gets permission to take off and land there. He wants to build a small hangar on the ridge and a new home on a knoll a couple hundred yards to the east.
He said the ridge is perfect for take-offs and landings as it is, so he wouldn’t pave it or even cut away the grass and other plants. In fact, he said, the ridge top’s slight dog-leg bend would give him options for safe landings in high winds.
He pledged to use the strip for no more than one trip per day. Because his plane is so light — about 1,140 pounds without fuel — taking off only takes a few seconds, he said, so noise exposure would be minimal.
When Hilde asked for a permit to build the hangar, someone in the county offices asked why he needed one. That was when he found out taking off and landing an aircraft in the Foothills requires a special permit. He’s stopped landing there and now stores his plane at the Boise Airport.
APPLICATION AND APPEAL
Similar to Boise’s, Ada County planning policy requires a conditional use permit for private landing fields in areas that have rural zoning designation. Some private airfields already exist in the Foothills, but it’s unclear how many.
Hilde’s application for a permit alarmed the city of Boise, wildlife advocates and people who live in the Foothills. In April, the City Council voted unanimously to recommend denial of the airstrip.
This is zero fun for me.
Dean Hilde on the controversy over his application for a private airstrip
Ada County Planning and Zoning commissioners voted to approve Hilde’s permit in early May. Two-and-a-half weeks later, the city appealed the decision to the three-member county commission.
Boise’s comprehensive plan makes no mention of airstrips in the Foothills. Instead, it anticipates residential and some commercial development. That means airstrips aren’t allowed, planning director Hal Simmons said.
According to the city’s appeal letter, “an airstrip is incompatible, contrary to the comprehensive plan and an unacceptable fire risk.”
The Wildhorse Ranch area is a sore spot for the Boise Fire Department.
In the mid-2000s, Doan said, the city raised concerns about the subdivision because only one road went in and out, there was no water reservoir for fire suppression and the homes didn’t have sprinkler systems. The county approved the project anyway.
In 2007, a home caught fire, and the fire department put it out. It was a big and expensive effort. Shortly after he became fire chief, Doan sent a $15,000 bill to the homeowner, who never paid it. Now, the fire department refuses to respond to incidents in that area, Doan said.
“This subdivision has from the beginning refused to do anything that we require anybody else in the city to do,” Doan said. “Yet they want the city to come up and protect them for free, and it’s not fair to the taxpayers. It’s not fair to the developer across the street in the city limits that at their own expense put in all that infrastructure. So if I were to respond up there, I would be rewarding poor behavior.”
Hilde said the fire risk from his plane is minimal. Doan couldn’t recall a Foothills fire caused by a private airplane, but the city is worried nonetheless.
“Boise considers an airstrip composed of natural vegetation, along with a hangar that will store airplane fuel, to be among the worst possible uses in this high-risk area of the Foothills,” according to the city’s appeal letter.
As a condition of approving the airstrip, the county’s Planning and Zoning Commission required Hilde to put the property in a fire district Wildhorse Ranch homeowners have established. But so far, Doan said, that district exists mostly on paper, with no firefighting equipment to speak of or trained firefighters.
“The fire district condition is completely meaningless and provides no protection to this property or other Foothills properties that would be threatened with wildfire by this development,” Boise’s appeal letter reads.
Hilde said the fire district, to which he contributes money, soon will buy equipment and operate its own fire department. In fact, he said, his airstrip could be a valuable resource for responding to fires and other emergencies in the Foothills because he would allow firefighting crews to use it. Doan said that “would be of no use or value at all” because firefighting planes are too big to land on the ridge, and they need the refueling capacity and other facilities that are only available at real airports.
Two conservation groups, Great Old Broads for Wilderness and the Ada County Fish and Game League, joined the city of Boise in appealing the planning and zoning commission’s approval of Hilde’s airstrip.
Like the city, the groups worry Hilde’s plane will disturb elk, deer and other wildlife that inhabit the Foothills. To soften those concerns, Hilde said he wouldn’t take off or land when big game were on or near the airstrip. Besides not wanting to bother them, he said, using an airstrip with big animals nearby wouldn’t be safe.
“It's kind of self-policing,” he said.
The property is close to a segment of the Boise River Wildlife Management Area, a 19,000-acre swath of the Foothills where thousands of mule deer and hundreds of elk spend winters. But the 149-acre property Hilde wants to buy isn’t prime winter range for elk, said Rick Ward, an environmental staff biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game’s southwest region.
Ward said Hilde’s plane likely wouldn’t be any more disruptive to wintering elk than dogs, which big game animals perceive as predators. Elk and other big game typically don’t worry much about airplanes and other vehicles once they learn about take-offs and landings and figure out the machines aren’t a threat, he said. For example, he said, elk and deer often hang out at Garden Valley’s airfield.
Elk that winter in the Foothills have become tolerant enough of human presence to go into people’s yards, Ward said.
Fish and Game wouldn’t monitor the airstrip to make sure Hilde didn’t use it when elk and deer were near it, but Ward said he’s pretty confident neighbors and other observers would notify the department if Hilde violated that condition.
Fish and Game doesn’t have an official position on Hilde’s application.
‘THE RIGHT THING’
Hilde brushed off concerns that his airplane will be a noise disturbance to his neighbors and people who recreate in the Foothills.
He said the plane is quieter than a lot of trucks.
“What should kill people’s worries is there’s only a handful of airplanes that can actually operate on this (ridge),” he said. “It’s limited to the type of airplane that I fly, which is a super-light, quiet, high-performance” aircraft.
Hilde said he has no idea when he’d build his home and the hangar if he gets a permit to use the ridge as an airstrip. If the permit is approved, authority to use the ridge as an airstrip, and all attached conditions, would transfer with the property, the county’s Mark Perfect said.
Hilde thinks most of the opposition to his proposal is coming from people who live miles away and simply assume that he’ll be operating something like a small commercial airport.
“I want this to be the right thing. I want to do it right for my neighbors,” he said. “If there’s a real reason that it’s going to affect someone, I don’t want to do it. Because I’ve got to live with these people.”
Hearing this week
Ada County commissioners are scheduled to hold a public hearing Wednesday on the appeal of the Planning and Zoning Commission’s approval of the permit to use a ridge in the Boise Foothills as a primitive landing strip.
The meeting starts at 6 p.m. in the county’s public hearing room, on the first floor of the Ada County Courthouse, 200 W. Front St., in Boise.