Would Eagle be better off with goats than its current City Council members?
That’s what one frustrated resident, Judy Dahl, suggested to a crowd of 45 people at the Eagle City Council meeting last week as she chided the council about how it has managed the city’s rapid growth.
While growth has frustrated many people in Eagle, anger lately has focused on one development: Molinari Park.
In February, the council approved the project, which includes 200 apartments, 16 condos, 91 townhouses and retail development for the southeast corner of South 2nd Street and East Plaza Drive in Eagle’s downtown. For many residents, Molinari Park has come to symbolize a threat to Eagle’s small-town character.
For years, Eagle has been an upscale bedroom community to Boise. It’s a city notable for its high-end subdivisions and horse properties. The city’s property values are among the highest in the Treasure Valley.
But as Eagle grows, it is making space for higher-density apartments that officials say are necessary to make sure the city has a variety of housing options for its growing workforce, including housing suited to people of various ages and income levels.
A vision of an urban downtown
Two years ago, the city outlined its intentions in a new comprehensive plan. The plan included a vision of an urban downtown with increased employment options and multifamily housing. That density would be contrasted by the surrounding large-lot, residential-zoned spaces.
Molinari Park, proposed by developer Greg McVay, is the type of mixed-use project the plan encourages.
As Eagle residents now start to see the frames of apartment projects going up around Eagle that were approved, their anger has festered. For some, Molinari Park is the final straw. The idea of more apartments and traffic at the intersection of Idaho 55 and Idaho 44 is too much.
“They’re slowly taking away everything that’s most valuable to us,” said Dahl, who moved to Eagle in 2013 from Modesto, California, for the small-town feel. “They plan on completely destroying our rural area.”
For a small group of regular City Council attendees, anger toward the apartments has built into a greater frustration with the city’s overall direction. They are launching an effort to recall the mayor, Stan Ridgeway, who is up for re-election in November, and council President Miranda Gold, who joined the council in 2017 and is up for re-election in 2021.
Still, others feel that Eagle’s growth has moved in a positive direction. Jeff Stucker, who grew up in Kuna and moved to Eagle 12 years ago, said he enjoys downtown’s semi-urban feel and its dedication to green space.
“We love the walkability of Eagle and want to keep it moving in a positive direction,” he said at Tuesday’s meeting. “But we’re at a crossroads. Will we stay committed to a path that will bring people together?”
At the moment, the division between the city government and the most vocal residents is stark. Dahl said city leaders have a dramatic impact on people’s lives.
“If you’re not going to take responsibility, then please step aside,” she said at the council meeting.
“We’d be better off with goats,” she finished. A lone crowd member started to clap.
“Please, no applause,” Ridgeway responded.
Eagle is one among many Treasure Valley cities where the growth of high-density housing has triggered a response from the city.
After Star approved a 196-unit apartment complex at the intersection of Idaho 44 and Idaho 16, a resident led an unsuccessful recall effort against the city’s mayor and a councilman who had supported the project.
Meridian, too, is facing backlash from residents who view apartments as the antithesis to the city’s single-family character. And neighbors in northwest Boise have protested a planned subdivision that would bring 83 townhouses, 74 single-family homes and up to 130 apartments to Hill Road.
In the eyes of Eagle’s leaders, the frustration with the apartment projects is somewhat of a delayed response.
Eagle began planning for a higher-density downtown in 2011, after developments like a new Home Depot and Winco raised concerns about too much commercial growth at the outskirts of town. Reacting to the negative response, city officials decided to concentrate commercial growth in the downtown area.
Where previous plans had envisioned preserving downtown’s existing Old Town feel with low-rise buildings, the city also decided to encourage a high density of residential units that might one day feed into a public transit system along Idaho 44, on the southern edge of downtown.
Those ideas were further solidified during the most recent comprehensive planning process, which in 2016 and 2017 saw 15% of Eagle residents surveyed about how to plan for the city’s future growth.
“It was a turning point,” said Gold, who has supported the comprehensive plan. The plan outlined a new vision for Eagle that factored in the city’s rapid growth and allowed for a dense downtown surrounded by Eagle’s traditional rural, residential land.
The city has grown on pace with Eagle’s estimations. Eagle tripled in size from 2000 to 2019. The third-largest city in Ada County, its population is expected to grow to 58,030 residents by 2040, up from 31,270 today.
With no end in sight, Gold said she wants to help Eagle become a full-service city, with more jobs and housing choices.
That preparation for Eagle’s growth is exactly what concerns residents like Megan Bennett, a small business owner and mother of three who spoke up at a recent town hall in April. “I feel like we’re looking forward to the future while forgetting the people who already live here,” she told the council.
Residents also worry that the Eagle City Council is approving growth the city can’t handle.
Dahl, having escaped a rapidly growing area herself, doesn’t want Eagle to start allowing more development until it can provide improved streets and larger schools that would be required of a growing population. While those responsibilities fall to the West Ada School District and Ada County Highway District, Dahl argues that Eagle has a responsibility not to grow beyond its resources.
Ridgeway points out that not all of the growth has happened under his administration. He noted that many of the new apartment projects residents are reacting to were permitted by previous councils, but are just now nearing completion.
“If the comprehensive plan needs changes, we’re certainly open to that,” he said. “It can’t be done just because there are some people that don’t like it.”
Former Mayor Nancy Merrill, who served from 2002 to 2008, feels that Eagle has moved too quickly to approve developments in the past several years.
She says Eagle has too readily approved apartment projects in areas designated mixed use, which can include residential and commercial space, without asking developers to include a greater variety of uses or green space.
“I don’t see a council with vision,” she said. “They’re not armed with enough information and experience to say, ‘No, let’s slow down.’”
She blames that on the council’s lack of experience.
Council members Miranda Gold and Kenny Pittman were elected in 2017, Councilwoman Jill Mitchell in 2018, having served previously as a Library Board member. Councilman Stan Bastian has spent 28 years serving in public roles such as councilman, state senator and as a member of the CWI Board. Ridgeway started on the council in 2014 before taking the mayor’s office in 2016, although he served previously in public positions in other cities .
In a statement, Ridgeway pushed back. “The current City Council and Mayor have a combined 51 years of experience as elected officials.... With all due respect to Former Mayor Merrill, when she left office Eagle’s population was about half of what it is today. This is a different time and the city faces different challenges. The citizens vote for elected officials based not just on experience, but also on point-of-view and platform. This is the council the public chose.”
Seeking council’s reconsideration
When a city council reaches a decision neighbors disagree with, their only recourse is to ask the council to reconsider and rehear the project.
In mid-May, a group of six residents formally asked the city to reconsider the Molinari Park development. In their request,they alleged that the project would harm their property values because it did not fit in with Eagle’s lower-density character.
Many also have voiced their fear that the apartment dwellers will clog Idaho 55, overcrowd schools and bring crime to the area. (Eagle’s police chief has previously said that, despite Eagle’s growth, crime rates are at record lows.)
The request for reconsideration went beyond just the group’s problems with the project — it also criticized how the project was approved. Through their lawyer, Andrea Carroll, the residents alleged that the council had followed improper procedure in greenlighting the project. They accused one council member of meeting with the developer about the project outside of the public hearing process, and argued that the project should be reheard.
While the council agreed to rewrite its decision to better address concerns raised by members of the public during the hearing process, it declined to hold another hearing on the decision.
Mark Butler, the land-use planner who is representing the Molinari Park developer, told the Statesman in an interview that the reconsideration request will not affect plans for the project.
Moving forward with a recall
One of the six residents who asked the council to reconsider the project, Paul Villaret, said residents will begin an effort to recall Ridgeway and Gold this week.
“If residents think a recall is warranted, that’s up to them,” Ridgeway said.
Merrill said the November election is the best avenue to change Eagle’s direction. She will wait to see what candidates emerge before she decides whether to run for mayor again, she said.
Ridgeway still plans to run for mayor in the fall, and already has filed the paperwork to begin raising funds for his campaign.
“This group of people might be surprised about how much support elected officials do have in Eagle,” he said.
This story was updated with a statement from Eagle Mayor Stan Ridgeway at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, May 24.