Guest Opinions

Foothills airport not compatible, illustrates Ada’s antiquated zoning code

Take a trip into the Owyhees on Dean Hilde's airplane

See Silver City, the desert south of Boise and the Snake River from a low-altitude flight into the mountains.
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See Silver City, the desert south of Boise and the Snake River from a low-altitude flight into the mountains.

Ada County and Boise city officials displayed patience, understanding and goodwill at the recent appeal hearing of the county-approved foothills airport by Table Rock. Watching friends fight saddens me, especially when taxpayers fund both sides of the argument.

It’s clear that Ada County Planning and Zoning’s errant approval of an airport in the Boise Foothills against public wishes stems from outdated county zoning code. The Valley’s economy, population and need for open space have changed immensely since Idaho’s 1975 Local Land Use Planning Act passed.

Good zoning prevents insensitive, incompatible uses — things such as back-channel, fly-in subdivisions on scenic ridges adjacent to long established parks, refuges and religious sites. The county’s outdated, inappropriate RP Foothills zone enables Foothills slaughterhouses, large Foothills feed lots and Foothills airstrips. This manifests staff and officials with the impossibility of shoehorning good policy from bad code.

Public emails and testimony make clear today’s Foothills fill a different community need and public sentiment has changed. Further, the open-ended airport approval where subverted county zoning sprouted a successful subdivision is suspect.

The loudest calls for commissioners to affirm the airport claimed “property rights.” Other testimony cited applicants for decades shorting proper county property taxes. Citizens who dutifully pay rightful property taxes in full might view county airport affirmation a wrongful reward for wrongdoing.

A conditional use permit is meant to legitimize things that don’t precisely “fit” a zone, but are close enough — but only if 1) they achieve community goals and 2) have enforceable conditions. Vague, unenforceable conditions for an unpopular Foothills airport is clearly at odds with last fall’s 74 percent vote for open space — not airports — so failure on both counts. Further, county affirmation of this misplaced precedent risks fly-in developments wherever 40 acres can be carved with a landing area.

In contrast to the county’s gray beard, RP Foothills zone, the city kept code current, addressed constituent needs by updating its comprehensive plan, passed levies, bought open space and adopted a Foothills plan. City officials have been consistently rewarded at the ballot box.

Doubling down, approving Foothills airports despite wide public disapproval would not serve our community. It would stir unneeded friction and risk wasteful litigation with the city, which should be a full partner in serving our people. Citizens who fund both Ada County and Boise want thoughtful collaboration instead.

Positive paths to grow the best Treasure Valley perhaps include reaffirming the city’s Foothills policies, updating county zoning for the 21st century and extending the city impact area to the county line. Braver collaboration, if differences might be resolved, would be forming a Joint Planning and Zoning Commission per I.C. 67-6505. A joint commission could bring seamless Ada-Boise Foothills development and forestall contentious wheel spinning we’re now watching.

Citizens can communicate to commissioners until the final Foothills airport hearing (Wednesday) by emailing thoughts to

John Caywood is a retired Boisean.