Nothing brings out a crowd at a Meridian City Council meeting quite like a proposed apartment complex.
Take the meeting in August when 10 neighbors spent nearly an hour testifying against a 240-unit apartment complex proposed between Interstate 84 and Waltman Lane, west of Meridian Road.
“It’s got all the ingredients to be a slum in the future if it’s not put in properly,” said Nick Eller, one of the neighbors. “If it’s considered affordable housing, we got a recipe for disaster right into the entrance to our city.”
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“I am very concerned about the density,” said Nancy Swenson, another neighbor. “We bring in a bunch of apartments, we are going to be bringing in a bunch of traffic.”
Public opinion on dense housing development in Meridian is starkly divided. Some citizens are crying out for more affordable housing as home prices grow year after year. Others say apartments, townhomes, and closely-packed single-family homes are disrupting those parts of the city that still evoke its rural, small town roots.
But there is one thing people seem to agree on: No one wants dense development near them.
Density has become a taboo word in Meridian. But the city could soon be adding more of it. As some residents strive to preserve the large lots in Meridian’s less-developed areas, city planners say they can’t afford to continue to provide services like fire, sewer and parks to areas with one home every five acres. Over time, they say, the city will need denser housing in those areas, whether single-family homes, apartments or both.
If no one wants apartments near them, where do they go?
Meridian’s first wave of apartments started going up nine years ago near commercial centers, with several near I-84, including the the Gramercy Villas, south of Overland Road between Eagle and Locust Grove roads, and some close to downtown, such as the Rock Creek Apartments at 1051 W. Pine Ave.
The new wave is much bigger. From 2013 to 2018, as the number of single-family houses built in Meridian doubled, the number of multifamily units nearly tripled. In 2018, Meridian built 1,301 new multifamily units and 1,840 single family homes.
“The key is figuring out where it’s appropriate to develop it and where it doesn’t fit,” said City Planning Director Caleb Hood. “There is a housing market for it, and if we’re going to have service jobs, we’re going to have people that can afford something like that.“
Meridian is at an ideal moment to reconsider where the future of multifamily should be. The city is updating its comprehensive plan, a guiding document that outlines future city growth and will shape where multifamily is allowed for years.
“We would like to see them near employment areas, near major transportation corridors, near areas with a lot of services like commercial or regional parks,” said Associate City Planner Brian McClure.
In 2017, townhomes and apartments made up less than 5 percent of city land, while medium-density residential made up 65 percent. The rest is farmland, low-density housing, commercial development and public land.
The farmland is vanishing year by year. As Meridian runs low on space, multifamily-housing developers have increasingly sought land near existing single-family homes, sometimes in areas where apartments were never anticipated. As a result, they have turned to the City Council to seek revisions to the comprehensive plan or rezone parcels to allow for apartments.
That’s sparked backlash from residents, some of whom say Meridian should stop developing apartments altogether, or at least cluster them in a few areas.
Clustering new apartment buildings all in one place — like downtown Meridian or near The Village at Meridian— isn’t feasible, Hood said.
But the city is planning future pockets of density in some areas that aren’t next to existing subdivisions, that are still farmland.
Consultants hired by the city drafted proposals for the Fields District, an area of mostly farmland bordered by Can Ada Road to the west, McDermott Road to the east, Chinden Boulevard to the north and Ustick Road to the south. The district is zoned for low- and medium-density single-family homes, but two of the consultants’ three proposals call for high-density housing, either near the to-be-constructed Highway 16 interchange at Chinden Boulevard or the new Owyhee High School.
That development won’t happen soon. Apartment builders are just now starting to turn dirt around the Ten Mile Interchange, where Meridian has been planning for apartments since 2011.
In Southwest Meridian, Meridian is considering some high-density development along Linder Road between Amity and Lake Hazel roads, and single-family homes to the west.
Rural no more
Susan Karnes moved to South Meridian from Eagle three years in search of more space. Now, the city seems to be closing in on her.
Karnes built a house on a hill overlooking farmland east of Locust Grove Road and south of Amity Road. Ten years ago, the area was agricultural. Then came her neighborhood, followed by more rooftops in the farmland below.
In response to increasingly dense single-family homes going up around them, Karnes and a neighbor started a group to preserve larger lot sizes in South Meridian, the area south of I-84.
“We’re not against development. We know development’s coming,” she said in an interview. “We want it to be of a quality that will sustain itself for the property tax revenues that the city relies upon, and that will sustain the property value of things around it.”
She started a petition that gathered over 1,000 signatures asking Meridian to stop granting any developer requests to convert lower-density residential areas to higher densities.
“New development should recognize existing agricultural uses and practices, respect view sheds and open space, and maintain or improve the overall health and production of agricultural lands and resources in the area,” the petition said.
But as the city revises its comprehensive plan, planners are considering allowing more dense neighborhoods along the Southern Rim, an elevated strip of land in Southeast Meridian stretching roughly from Cloverdale and Lake Hazel roads northwest to Overland and Ten Mile roads.
Karnes, who sits on the comprehensive plan steering committee, said people moving to Meridian are “clamoring” for larger lots.
“As you build a community, there has to be a place for diversity in housing,” she said. “One element of that is you have to have some executive housing, because very often those are the people with discretionary income.”
City Councilman Ty Palmer has grown frustrated with people making that argument. He said those residents in the Southern Rim want to isolate themselves from people who are less well-off.
“They’re trying to preserve the views,” he said in a recent phone interview. “They don’t want us $300,000 Corey Barton Homes [dwellers] near their half-million [dollar] houses.”
Geoffrey Wardle, a land use lawyer, said he was concerned that the proposals for estate lots — which can eat up an acre or more of land — won’t fix Meridian’s problems.
“Estate lots are not a solution to sprawl. Estate lots are not a solution to loss of farmland,” Wardle said in an interview.
On top of that, the city needs a certain level of density to provide services like sewer and water at a low cost, he said. “There have been a lot of infrastructure decisions — for sewer, water, roads — that have been made and based on a certain degree of density over time,” Wardle said.
Mounting pressure has in some cases slowed the City Council’s decisions on amendments to the comprehensive plan. In the fall, it pushed back some proposed projects that would have required changes to the comprehensive plan and asked developers instead to propose their amendments to the comprehensive plan steering committee.
Enforcing plans for future growth
Even as Meridian makes plans for growth, it has no authority to enforce its comprehensive plan.
“Almost always you have zoning and a comp plan, and they don’t harmonize with each other,” said Tommy Ahlquist, chief executive officer of Ball Ventures Ahlquist Development, in a recent interview.
BVA is behind projects like the new office complexes at Ten Mile Crossing, north of I-84 along Ten Mile Road, and a medical office and senior living development called Central Valley Plaza, at Idaho 16 and Chinden Boulevard.
A comprehensive plan provides the vision, but the city’s zoning ordinance is law. Developers can propose any project that fits within the existing zoning of a parcel, and while they can ask to rezone properties to adhere to the comprehensive plan, they aren’t required to.
Idaho land use law requires cities to create comprehensive plans to show developers and residents the types of projects that the city is likely to approve in specific areas in the future. But cities don’t typically initiate the process to rezone parcels themselves. They leave that to the property owner.
And property owners don’t always go along with a comprehensive plan’s suggestions. In January, BVA said it would not bother applying to build an apartment building on a parcel it is developing near Eagle and Overland roads — though zoning allows it, and city staffers say the comprehensive plan encourages it.
The reason? BVA has witnessed the City Council’s occasional unwillingness to stand by its comprehensive plan’s call for apartments in the face of neighbors’ opposition.
In a message to Meridian City Planner Bill Parsons, Wardle, BVA’s lawyer, wrote that BVA had held a neighborhood meeting attended by 13 people who voiced a “negative and visceral response” to the inclusion of any multifamily residential development on the site. BVA decided to instead propose a Top Golf-like entertainment center rather than apartments.
City planners resisted. They pressed BVA to comply with their request for multifamily units there. BVA yielded, and in a proposal that was approved by City Council on March 5, it included the golf business and left space for a potential multifamily building in the future.
That’s an example, Hood said, of how the city tries to work with developers to see its long term plans become a reality.
“We need to have the developer, the property owner and the community on board to make that happen,” Hood said.
An updated version of this story published on March 18 clarifies the intent of Susan Karnes’ petition.