Guest Opinions

We’re growing, with new brewpubs, restaurants and subdivisions. But at what cost?

Downtown Boise grows up, and up, and up

Boise is one of the nation's fastest-growing cities. Here's a look at what's already been built and what's to come for Idaho's capital.
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Boise is one of the nation's fastest-growing cities. Here's a look at what's already been built and what's to come for Idaho's capital.

Something seems to have shifted in the Treasure Valley in the past few years. Our once-quiet corner of the world is suddenly bustling. We now enjoy more breweries, restaurants and concerts than ever, but at what cost?

It appears that every scrap of open land in the Valley is being eyed for new subdivisions, strip malls and big-box stores. The relentless forces of growth and development are determined to see our open spaces paved over and given pleasant names. I believe this should not be inevitable. We the people should get more of a say in growth and the questions surrounding it. How should growth be planned and built? How much is enough, or too much? How can it be balanced with private property rights?

Oregon and Florida are different in just about any way you could imagine, but their city planning is one that stands out to me. Larger cities in Oregon have an urban growth boundary that confines dense development. On one side of the line is city and suburb; on the other side is farmland. It’s that sharp, and it’s beautiful. Growth boundaries are expanded by a few tens or hundreds of acres per year to try to keep home prices down.

Florida has taken a different path. Vast areas of the state contain endlessly repeating strips of the same 50 stores. Many of the roads, even though they’re three lanes in each direction, have so many stoplights that it can take 90 minutes to go 15 miles. The toll freeways built to bypass this mess are expensive, but the surface roads make you so crazy that you’ll give anything to drive unimpeded for even one mile. Imagine Eagle Road with at least three times as many stoplights and shopping centers, and extend that for 20, 50 or 100 miles, and you have an idea of driving in Florida.

Which model will we choose for the Treasure Valley? Is it inevitable that all the farmland from Boise to Ontario, from the Foothills to the Snake River, will someday be paved? All signs currently point to yes. We grow this way at great peril to our quality of life. Our overcrowded schools and roads show we need to do better.

We should be building up in appropriate places in our cities, not out. And we should fiercely protect as much open land within these dense zones as we can. It can be a challenge to keep housing affordable when building in this way, and that’s where our city and county leaders come in. We must implore them to make sure the development they permit is reasonable, with affordable housing prioritized over developer profit.

Our future in an overcrowded valley will be a bleak one of traffic jams and endless strip malls. I don’t think it’s too late to veer away from this path, but time is running out. If you don’t want this, get involved in your city and county government.

Tim Ernst is a Boise resident and an armchair advocate for local environmental and livability issues.