West Ada

A decade ago, Eagle wanted to develop Foothills. Not now. But Avimor won’t back down

From the beginning, Avimor has received little love from city leaders.

Both Eagle and Boise opposed the the 800-acre planned community in the Foothills north of Boise on the edge of the county limits. In 2007, Boise sued Ada County after it approved Avimor, arguing it would increase congestion on Boise streets.

The city lost, and Avimor went right on building. As of 2019, Avimor has built about 500 of the 839 houses the county authorized it to build in 2003.

But Avimor has much more room to grow — 23,000 acres, owned for five generations by the McLeods, a family of Idaho ranchers. Their land extends from the Ada-Gem county line south to Eagle’s northernmost city limits.

“From the very beginning, we were interested in annexing into Eagle,” said Dan Richter, general manager and partner at Avimor.

But now, Eagle is pulling out the welcome mat from under Avimor’s feet.

In August, the City Council directed its staff to consider a measure to limit development in the Foothills.

“We have a lot of people that want to preserve the rural spaces and the rural character we have,” said City Council President Miranda Gold in a phone interview with the Idaho Statesman.

The change in direction comes as Eagle’s leaders have started to consider the strain that sprawling growth has put on the city.

“The long-term cost of maintaining the city and providing services in the Foothills — that’s a tradeoff that is associated with growth,” Gold said.

If the council’s efforts pass, the city could could potentially derail development plans that have been in the works for years, including Avimor’s proposed expansion and another 6,000-acre subdivision that was approved in 2009 called Spring Valley.

Even with Eagle moving to limit development, Richter isn’t backing down. He figures it’s only a matter of time before residents elect a new council that will be more friendly toward development there.

“Politics change and politicians change,” he said.

Spring Valley and Avimor are two planned communities in the Eagle foothills. While all 6,000 acres of Spring Valley have been approved for development, Avimor only has permission to build on 900 of its 23,000 acres. Its managers had hoped to annex into the city of Eagle so it could expand. Kate Talerico / ktalerico@idahostatesman.com

Planned communities approved in the Foothills

Eagle hadn’t planned to develop in the Foothills. But when longtime landowners in unincorporated Ada County started selling off swaths of land just north of Eagle’s border, city leaders suddenly faced a question: Would Eagle control that growth, or would Ada County?

While other cities were struggling in the early 2000s to regulate growth that was coming whether they liked it or not, Ada County had been actively recruiting developers to build in unincorporated land. The Board of County Commissioners traveled to meet with real estate developers who wanted to build planned communities — large developments designed to include residential and retail hubs that can span thousands of acres.

The Dallas Police and Fire Pension System was among many investors who bet their money on the Treasure Valley’s real estate boom. In 2005, the fund bought 6,000 acres in the Eagle Foothills from the McLeod family for $42 million. They hired Arizona-based M3 Cos. to develop it as a planned community called Spring Valley, which would include 12,000 houses, a hotel, equestrian centers and restaurants.

On the rest of their land to the north, the McLeods partnered with a well-heeled development firm called SunCor for their own planned community, Avimor. That made Eagle officials nervous.

“The city’s eyes got really big,” said Nichoel Baird Spencer, an Eagle planner. “The Foothills don’t have a lot of infrastructure to support development.”

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The proposed 6,000-acre, 7,000-home Spring Valley Ranch project north of Eagle along Willow Creek Road never happened, much to the chagrin of the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System, which spent more than $62 million on the project without a single home being built. Darin Oswald / doswald@idahostatesman.com

Worried about growing in an area no one had planned for, Eagle found a way to bring these projects under its control: It expanded the city’s comprehensive plan, which provides a guide for the city’s future growth, to include the Foothills. That would force the county to hand authority of the planned communities to Eagle, leaving the city to regulate the density, design standards and infrastructure to be installed.

Over the next 18 months, the city worked with its residents, Spring Valley and Avimor to draft a plan for the Foothills, north of Beacon Light Road and south of the county line, and between Highway 16 and Idaho 55. The plan allowed for one house every two acres, after setting aside acres that couldn’t be built on, including steep hillsides, floodways and habitats.

A developer could also build at greater densities by setting aside open space. The effect would be clusters of homes nestled together in hamlets, surrounded by rolling, rural foothills — almost exactly the McLeods’ vision for Avimor.

The city approved the plan in 2007, and shortly after, Eagle annexed Spring Valley.

Eagle’s agreement to annex Spring Valley came with conditions. If Spring Valley preserved 20% of the land for open space — the minimum in Eagle — it could build 3,000 houses. If it preserved 40%, Spring Valley could build 7,000 — 5,000 fewer homes than what it had first proposed to Eagle.

Because their land bordered Spring Valley, the McLeods at that point could have annexed the 23,000 acres they owned for Avimor into Eagle. But Avimor’s developer, SunCor, decided to keep building out the 800 acres that had been approved east of Idaho 55, with plans to expand toward Eagle and eventually seek annexation.

“Everyone was moving forward,” Baird-Spencer said. “Then the recession changed everything.”

In 2009, Eagle annexed Spring Valley, a 6,000-acre planned community that could at some point add between 3,000 and 7,000 houses to the city. Kate Talerico

The recession hits

Development of Avimor and Spring Valley, which had for so long followed parallel paths, suddenly diverged.

The Dallas pension fund couldn’t afford to build Spring Valley. Beyond the $42 million it had spent on the land, the pension fund had also paid more than $20 million to its partner, M3 Cos, to work on getting their development plans approved.

Nothing was built. In 2018, the pension fund put the land up for sale.

Meanwhile, Avimor plowed forward. The McLeods, not beholden to any bank, rode out the recession. By 2010, Avimor had built 24 houses. Today, it has nearly 500, plus a gas station and community center.

In 2015, Richter started planning for the other 23,000 acres the McLeods still owned. He approached the city with a plan that would allow Avimor to expand its infrastructure by creating a special taxing district called a community infrastructure district.

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Willow Creek Road winds through the Foothills north of Eagle where developers in 2005 announced plans to build as many as 7,000 homes in the 6,000-acre Spring Valley Ranch planned community. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

Eagle’s agreement with Avimor

The community infrastructure district was a tool that Avimor’s developers worked with the Idaho Legislature to create. It would let Avimor take out a bond to pay for water, sewer and roadway improvements and pay it back by placing a new tax on homeowners.

Under state law, Avimor needed consent from both the city of Eagle and the county to create the district. Ada County and Eagle approved the district for the 800 acres Avimor had under development. Eagle’s council argued that if Avimor wanted to expand the district, the business needed to come back to the city to talk about annexation.

That time came in 2017. Richter, who had been with Avimor since the beginning and become a partner in 2009 when SunCor sold its share in the company, asked Eagle if it would annex its 23,000 acres.

The city hesitated. Preliminary numbers showed that Eagle had little to gain by annexing Avimor. The property taxes brought in might not be enough to make up for the city services Eagle would need to provide. Impact fees, which developers pay when they start construction on a building, might cover some of the initial cost, but when those fees were spent, would property taxes be enough to cover continuing expenses?

“The cost to provide the same level of services to Avimor would not necessarily break even for us for 20 years or 30 years,” Mayor Stan Ridgeway told the Statesman. “It would cost the citizens to annex Avimor.”

He had other concerns: Avimor had been approved under Ada County. Would the community’s design standards match Eagle’s? Avimor’s plans extended past Ada County into Gem and Boise County. Who would be responsible for emergency medical services, trash or the roads all the way out there?

Richter disputes the city’s figures.

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The Avimor planned community is developing on 23,000 acres north of Eagle along Idaho 55. Nearly 500 homes have been built so far. Ada County has authorized only about 800 homes. To expand, Avimor’s managers had hoped to annex into the city of Eagle, but now the city may be removing a path to do so. Kelsey Grey kgrey@idahostatesman.com

Does Avimor have a path forward?

After their talks with Avimor, city leaders realized they had to make a choice: Did they really want Eagle controlling land in the Foothills? The rapid threat of development there had forced the city’s hand in 2007, and Eagle had stepped in to win control over development from the county.

But since then, new county leaders have taken office with fresh views about planned communities. After realizing the costs of providing urban services to communities on the edge of the county, the county commissioners in 2016 passed regulations raising the bar to get such developments approved.

Last November’s election suggests that the county could get even tougher. Newly elected commissioners Diana Lachiondo and Kendra Kenyon say they want to limit growth in the unincorporated county in favor of building within city limits.

With Eagle and the county commissioners finally agreeing on a vision for rural, undeveloped Foothills, the council in August directed the city staff to remove the Foothills planning area from the comprehensive plan.

Practically, that would not stop Spring Valley. The agreement the city entered into to allow Spring Valley to build 3,000 to 7,000 houses there will still hold until 2039, even if the pension fund sells the land to a new owner.

But it could slow Avimor. Avimor doesn’t yet have permission to build outside of the 800 acres it got approved by the county in 2003. By removing the Foothills planning area from its comprehensive plan, Eagle would be shutting its doors to future annexation of Avimor.

Workers unload sheetrock into a house being built in Avimor in 2013. Boise State Public Radio

Richter’s only other option is going to the county and asking it to modify its plans so Avimor can expand beyond those 800 acres. He could also go through the new, more rigorous planned community process. But he would face a commission that is now less friendly to Avimor.

Avimor is boxed in.

Eberle sees Eagle’s actions as backtracking.

“With growth, you don’t get to start at ground zero with every problem,” he said.

But council members like Gold say they’re protecting Eagle’s taxpayers and preserving the Foothills’ rural character.

That is, as long as the Eagle City Council maintains that philosophy.

“It’s basically just an election cycle,” Richter said.

Richter and the McLeods are patient. Richter figures that if they wait long enough, either Ada County or Eagle could eventually turn back in Avimor’s favor.

“All the sentiment about growth gets elected officials a little nervous about annexing other grounds,” he said. “Maybe one day we’ll have a recession, and they’ll be more grateful.”

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Kate reports on West Ada and Canyon County for the Idaho Statesman. She previously wrote for the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Providence Business News. She has been published in The Atlantic and BuzzFeed News. Kate graduated from Brown University with a degree in urban studies.