Boise hasn’t updated it’s zoning code since the 1960s and, according to a new report, it shows.
This month, Denver-based consulting firm Clarion Associates released its findings detailing the outdated aspects of Boise’s development code and what it heard from neighbors, developers and city staff about what could be improved. This report is part of the firm’s work for the City of Boise as it moves to rewrite the zoning code from the ground up over the next two to three years.
Planning for the long-planned update began under former Mayor Dave Bieter and launched under Mayor Lauren McLean in fall 2020. The city underwent several updates to its comprehensive plan in the past 60 years, but this is the first time the underlying laws governing development will be substantially overhauled in that time.
Clarion also helped develop the city’s proposal for the housing bonus ordinance unanimously approved by City Council earlier this month. The vote followed hours of testimony, with heavy criticism coming from neighborhood associations and activists who said the bonus would change neighborhoods without adding meaningful affordable housing.
Recent interviews with city officials working on the rewrite or the report did not mention plans to “upzone” the entire city or take drastic steps such as eliminating single-family zoning. There were discussions of adding more mixed-use projects and some small adjustments to parking requirements, but an across the board move to make the entire city denser has not been on the table.
‘Mismatches’ create conflict
One major takeaway from the report is an unusual level of distrust between residents, developers, appointed officials and City Council about zoning decisions. The report said clashes over zoning decisions happen in every community, but the firm noted a high level of comments about conflict in Boise they had not observed anywhere else.
In the report, Clarion said it found numerous places where the legal code’s structure and priorities did not match up with the city’s 2011 comprehensive plan called Blueprint Boise. The firm found priorities stated in the comprehensive plan, like affordable housing, protecting neighborhood character, walkability and community health were not reflected well in the legal code.
This mismatch between the law and Blueprint Boise is the root of frustration from many groups involved in the development process, Clarion argued.
“In short, many citizens feel that development decisions made under the current Code do not promote the Blueprint Boise vision, and it is unclear how they could engage in the process to make development decisions more consistent with that vision,” the report said.
A more user-friendly code
The report also noted unnecessarily wordy language with multiple lists of requirements in different places for any developer looking for rezones would have to sift through, which sometimes conflict with each other. The report said the code’s inconsistencies lead to unpredictable outcomes for neighborhoods and developers, creating clashes.
Clarion suggested several changes, like narrowing the number of zoning categories in the city to make it less complex to understand and easier to develop mixed-use projects that combine housing and commercial. The report also said residents wanted to see the code better allow for living arrangements like tiny homes, housing cooperatives and smaller single-family homes so they are more affordable.
Keeping Boise, Boise was also a major focus. The report mentioned creating a code that emphasizes neighborhood character, with the included suggestion from Clarion of limiting the scale of large buildings built directly next to residential neighborhoods.
“Additionally, engaging and educating residents about what zoning currently allows in their neighborhoods and how new development proposals could impact them would help facilitate informed discussions and reduce frustration when a new project is proposed,” the report said.