At a meeting this spring in Eagle, Mayor Stan Ridgeway and the City Council listened as residents begged them to slow the city’s development.
“We should be limiting the number of people that move in,” said one man.
“We moved here for the exact opposite reason of this kind of development,” said another.
The moment foreshadowed what would become the main concern for voters in Tuesday’s city elections, in not only Eagle but across the Treasure Valley: growth.
Growth infiltrated every aspect of the election. In Boise, Eagle and Star, voters rejected their incumbents and opted instead for challengers who promised to break from the status quo.
In Boise, four-term mayor David Bieter was impeded in large part by rising anxiety over housing costs, taxes, traffic and, in Northwest Boise at least, density — all while he backed a $100 million new library and stadium. In Eagle, voters retaliated against their elected officials’ approval of new apartment projects. And in Star, voters chose a challenger who focused his campaign on finding more money for roads.
“People are scared of the fact that we’re growing,” said Joe Palmer, a state legislator who ran for mayor of Meridian, during his campaign. Palmer raised the prospect of endless traffic jams if he wasn’t elected. (In his case, that argument wasn’t enough: He lost to Robert Simison, outgoing Meridian Mayor Tammy de Weerd’s top aide.)
“I don’t ever remember a time when every single candidate in every single race was really singularly focused on growth issues,” said Doug Taylor, a former chief of staff to then-Idaho congressman Raul Labrador who is now managing director of the Idaho office of The Yellowstone Group, a Utah commercial real estate firm.
“Growth is bringing with it extraordinary challenges, especially when it comes to the cost of housing and the growing amount of traffic,” Bieter told voters. His opponent, Lauren McLean, called growth the “single biggest issue facing our region right now.”
Where in past elections, candidates were asked how they would help Boise grow, this year voters asked them to pull back. Ironically, just as Boise is at the height of its economic power, Bieter is facing the most resistance from voters. He ran a distant second to McLean on Tuesday, but she failed to win a majority, so the two will face one another in Dec. 3. runoff election.
Growth has brought new jobs, events and restaurants. But it has also deepened the economic divide between natives and the newcomers who have come to reap the benefits of a heretofore affordable city and made it less so in the process.
As residents bemoan the disappearing affordable housing and increasing property taxes, the anti-growth sentiment here has strengthened. A survey released this summer by Boise State University illustrated just how strong that anti-growth sentiment was: 72% of Treasure Valley residents said they feel the region is growing too fast.
“Our real estate market is hot right now,” said Democratic state Rep. Mat Erpelding of Boise. “What a great thing to have — unless you’re the incumbent.”
Challengers like Ada County Highway District Commissioner Rebecca Arnold and disgraced former mayor Brent Coles sought to harness that frustration in their campaigns. They argued that city spending had spun out of control and promised to cut taxes for residents.
In Boise, plans for a glamorous new main library came to symbolize, for some voters, a sense that growth was beginning to harm Boise. Not only did a consultant estimate its cost at more than $100 million, but a historic building, The Cabin, just south of the library, would have to be relocated to make room for it.
A citizens group formed in December to challenge the library and Greenstone Properties’ proposed soccer and baseball stadium on the West End. The group, Boise Working Together, secured enough signatures to put city ordinances on Tuesday’s ballot requiring both projects to be approved by voters in future elections. Voters passed the laws overwhelmingly, a rebuke to Bieter and the City Council.
“People felt overtaxed on things… and then we see the mayor with his expensive and glamorous projects,” said Lori Dicaire, who runs a Facebook page called Vanishing Boise and was also involved with the Boise Working Together campaign. “He’s the mastermind of all this stuff. It’s his mayor’s office — the stadium and library and the property taxes.”
Erpelding said voters unfairly placed blame for appreciating home values and property taxes on Bieter. (Erpelding said he tried to be “neutral” in the election and gave $100 donations to both McLean and Bieter.)
“There’s a frustration at the pace of growth,” said Democratic Ada County Commissioner Diana Lachiondo. “That’s not something any elected official can control — but we can try to grow responsibly.”
Winning the traffic vote in Meridian, Star
In Meridian, Simison knocked on over a thousand doors. At house after house, voters described the horrors of their commutes — the bottleneck on Interstate 84, the waiting at stoplights on Eagle Road.
Simison’s solution? Dangle city funds in front of the Ada County Highway District, which controls all roads in the county except state highways and I-84, as an incentive to move roadway projects forward. It was a talking point that got people engaged on the campaign trail and drew nods in the audience at candidate panels.
Taylor, the ex-Labrador aide, said Simison is “much more moderate” than Palmer, his leading opponent. “He views the role of city government as being more important to managing growth in Meridian, whereas Palmer was going to limit the government’s role in managing growth.”
Taylor thinks Simison’s victory could reflect an evolving mindset in Meridian: that citizens think the government needs to take more control in harnessing growth.
In Star, Trevor Chadwick promised to build better relationships with ACHD.
“They’ve collected about $6 million in Star in impact fees and yet they haven’t gotten any projects done,” he told voters. His focus on bringing ACHD dollars back to Star worked — Chadwick won over incumbent Chad Bell with 75% of the vote.
In Eagle and Star, a referendum against urban growth
In Eagle, the election was a referendum on urban, higher-density growth. Incumbent Mayor Stan Ridgeway’s efforts to add a mix of multifamily rental units to their primarily single-family communities brought a sharp backlash from voters.
Eagle’s approval of Molinari Park, a 300-unit apartment and townhouse project in the city’s small downtown, spurred a group of wealthy homeowners to oust the mayor. They elected Jason PIerce.
“The extreme number of apartments that have been built and approved in the last five years was a really big concern,” said former Eagle mayor Nancy Merrill, who supported Pierce.
Pierce made high-density development a focus of his mayoral campaign. “The recent sprawl of high-density developments, including apartments, are destroying the landscape and character of Eagle by transforming it from elegant country living into urban sprawl,” he wrote on one flier.
“There’s a lot of concern, especially from folks that have moved here and came to Eagle for what it was,” Merrill said.
The city’s newly elected officials are clinging to that version of Eagle — though few would call Eagle rural these days, with its population of over 30,000, its backed-up highways, its commercial strip malls and its subdivisions going up just as in neighboring cities (albeit designed in faux-Italiante style).
Ada County Commissioner Rick Visser, a Republican, considers this election a call from voters to protect rural character where it still exists in Ada County, even as it faces pressure from growth to urbanize.
“I believe it is a directive,” he said. “We have to take into consideration the concentration of our population.”
No matter what the voters said Tuesday, growth will continue. New residential and commercial development applications keep coming into Boise, Meridian and other Treasure Valley cities.
Home prices may keep rising, too. Demand for housing will increase so long as the number of people moving here outpaces the number of houses and apartments built, so prices will continue to climb, said developer David Wali, a Boise developer and a Bieter supporter.
“You can change out elected officials, but you can’t change economics in a community that has inbound migration growth,” Wali said.
No matter who is elected, cities must still wrestle with the questions: With new residents coming, how much and what kind of development will we invite or allow, and where? What effects will it have on everyone else in the Valley — and what will be the cost?
Disputes over those questions will persist, too.
Predicts Erpelding: “The urbanization of the cities that surround Boise will increasingly be a place of contention.”