Ada County’s planning system is broken right where it matters most: where land use decisions meet traffic. When I joined the Boise Planning & Zoning Commission, I was surprised to learn that the governing document between Ada County Highway District and the city required only that the city place ACHD’s recommendations within the staff report. The challenging question that results is: Can the city require additional traffic mitigations beyond those mitigations suggested by ACHD? I could never get a clear answer from staff. Part of it, I believe, was that there is no answer, and the other part is fear of getting caught up in the politics.
Here is the crux of the problem. ACHD purports to have “exclusive jurisdiction” over all the roads. However, when ACHD does its transportation analysis, all it considers is how many vehicles are going down that road as compared to how many vehicles it believes that road can handle. It seldom considers pedestrians and bikes, and never considers noise, effects on neighboring property values, or how other nearby landowners and their property rights are affected by the transportation from a particular project. In the language of planning, those are the “land use effects of transportation,” and in ACHD’s mind, that is the purview of the city. However, at the city, staff, the developers and everyone else will tell you that the city does not own the roads, and thus, the city cannot impose any mitigations on those roads owned by ACHD. In short: None of the land use effects of transportation are ever mitigated because of this broken system.
This result is bad for all. It is bad for the agencies because developers play ACHD and the city off each other; at ACHD, they say that land use effects of traffic are for the city to decide, but at the city, they say that the city has no jurisdiction over roads. It is bad for developers because the city can require a traffic mitigation as a condition of approval that ACHD refuses to implement, which leaves a developer without a usable entitlement. It is also bad for the community because the land use effects of transportation are the ones that affect the community the most.
Here are three proposed solutions:
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▪ First, ACHD and its cities should establish a remand procedure where a planning commission could send a project back to ACHD for further transportation mitigation to address the land use effects of transportation identified by the city. With such a remand, the city could grant ACHD the authority to consider land use effects of transportation. Those recommendations from ACHD would then come back to the City for final approval or further modification.
▪ Second, ACHD should be required to have a staff person present at any relevant planning commission hearing where projects with significant land use effects of transportation will be reviewed. Thresholds could be established — a certain number of dwelling units, a certain square footage of commercial space, trips generated — that would trigger the requirement so as to limit the impact on ACHD staff.
▪ Third, an intergovernmental panel of ACHD and representatives of all of the cities it serves should be convened to further refine how to address the land use effects of transportation: those effects of transportation that are caused by roads but do not occur on the roads. Boise and ACHD are not alone in struggling with this dilemma; however, the unique bifurcation of land use and transportation planning jurisdiction to different agencies in this region requires intergovernmental cooperation for the sake of both developers and the community.
Stephen R. Miller is a law professor and a former commissioner on the Boise Planning & Zoning Commission. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.