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Boise looks for solutions to keep development, public input on track despite pandemic

This winter, construction and development projects in the Boise area started popping up everywhere. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic started effecting the area directly, adding uncertainty to just about everything.

Now City of Boise officials hope to come up with procedures to ensure projects can still move forward.

“It’s our full intent to keep construction going as long as we can do it in safe ways, so not everything is stopped in the next four to eight weeks,” Boise Mayor Lauren McLean told BoiseDev last week.

While neither McLean or Gov. Brad Little’s directives stop most construction, the mayor want to ensure the work continues safely.

The city’s planning and development department remains at work (from home), accepting applications and processing reports. Building inspectors continue to visit job sites. But the city temporarily suspended all city boards and commissions – except city council.

[Boise, Meridian planning & building departments adapt]

Keeping the process moving

For many projects to get off the ground, they have to pass through review with the Planning & Zoning, Design Review or Historic Preservation commissions – and some need city council approval as well.

“We don’t want to not take applications,” McLean said. “We are working on potential scenarios for how we could take some applications.”

Despite the sharp economic turn, the Boise area continues to cope with a significant housing shortage.

But McLean said without traditional in-person meetings in front of commissioners, technology and other solutions will be needed.

“What I’m looking to planning and development services to propose is a way we could move perfunctory business through. Most of what we have is like that. Maybe we could convene planning and zoning in a virtual way to deal with those items,” McLean said.

Bigger projects, bigger challenges

Boise’s PDS director Mark Lavin said larger projects could pose bigger challenges.

“If you have a topic where you have 20-40 people who want to testify, it’s going to be a challenge to hear those topics online,” Lavin said. “It would be easier to handle the projects that would have less or no testimony.”

Some developments, like a proposed collegiate apartment complex at Boise Ave. and Protest Hill, draw significant public testimony. At a hearing earlier this year, dozens of people testified on the project in a marathon session.

“My concern with projects that are controversial, until we’ve really dialed in civic engagement and participation, it’s hard to have that kind of hearing,” McLean said of the example.

“We would really be challenged to hear that one,” Lavin.

Neighborhood meetings without the neighborhood meeting

The first public step for many projects is the neighborhood meeting: A gathering of folks who live near a project hearing about it from the developer. The city is also trying to determine how it could meet that requirement as well without gatherings of people in the era of social distancing.

“Things that do require neighborhood meetings and more neighborhood engagement need to be held off until we have a solid technology solution,” McLean said.

“Cody (Riddle, deputy director) and his team are working on that,” Lavin said. “We don’t have an answer to it, but it’s a significant piece of the puzzle. It’s hard to advance projects if we haven’t had a neighborhood meeting.”

Don Day - BoiseDev Editor
Don is the founder and publisher of BoiseDev. He is a National Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a Stanford University John S. Knight Fellow. Contact him at [email protected].

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