There aren’t many issues these days uniting the Republican Ada County Commissioners, Boise Mayor Lauren McLean, multiple local governments and a land-use association.
But, the Ada County Highway District found one.
On Monday afternoon, Ada County officials from multiple localities and other organizations met with the highway district commissioners to discuss a bill they are bringing to the Idaho State Legislature exempting existing highway district “essential facilities” from some local zoning laws. It didn’t end in singing kumbaya around a Zoom campfire.
ACHD says SB 1106, brought to the legislature by the agency, is necessary to help them meet their obligations required by federal and state law to avoid costly disputes over the location of their facilities. General Counsel Steve Price said it simply gives highway districts the same exemptions from local land use laws afforded to the Idaho Transportation Department. He said most objections to the bill stem from misinformation or he addressed the issues they raised in a recent rewrite.
But, local officials of both parties are concerned the bill will reduce how much say city and county officials have on the locations of facilities within their own boundaries. It’s opposed by every city in Ada County, all three county commissioners, the Idaho Association of Cities, the Idaho Association of Counties and the Idaho Chapter of the American Planning Association.
While Price presented on the legislation and some recent changes made after negative feedback, officials on the call peppered him with testy comments and questions about the motivations and necessity of the bill. Price and ACHD Commission President Kent Goldthorpe said the bill was debated “extensively” last fall and brought to the legislature through normal procedures, but other officials on the call said they had no notice it was coming.
“Given the fact that there’s so much opposition to this bill, would you consider just withdrawing this bill and trying to work on a cooperative solution?” Ada County Commission Chair Rod Beck asked.
“No,” ACHD President Kent Goldthorpe said.
Location, location, location
It all leads back to a salt shed in Garden City.
Across the street from ACHD’s headquarters on Adams Street is a maintenance and operations center with a large pile of sand, salt, and other equipment for weather equipment to treat roads for winter weather under a canopy. The central location in the industrial area is ideally situated to treat icy roads across Ada County, the highway district says.
But, Garden City wants it to go. The shed has a temporary permit from the city set to expire in June and Mayor John Evans and city council do not want to renew it, pushing ACHD to relocate the operation somewhere else. The dispute over the shed’s permit eventually brought the two government agencies to Fourth District Court, where litigation is ongoing.
Evans told BoiseDev they are pushing ACHD to relocate because it lies within the floodplain, like 74% of Garden City, and if it’s not relocated it could lead to increases in flood insurance for residents of his city. He believes ACHD’s motive for trying to pass SB 1106 is to circumvent the ongoing court dispute.
“Our motive is to protect the flood insurance rates of our citizens,” Evans said in a phone interview Friday. “As the mayor I have to make every effort to protect our ability to offer the lowest rates possible.”
Price says differently. He said SB 1106 would only exempt existing facilities ACHD owns and operates from the Local Land Use Planning Act, which does not deal with flood plain regulations at all. During Monday’s meeting, he said a recent read of the statute found no mention of flooding anywhere in the Local Land Use Planning Act.
He called Evans’ argument about the flood plain and objections from others saying the bill would allow ACHD to install 5G technology in the right of way with no public hearings “red herrings.”
“A lot of it is they don’t understand the law,” he said in a phone interview Friday. “I think they’ve been pretty clear over the past few years that ACHD’s operation center in Garden City is along the Boise River and it’s prime real estate for development. Right now because it’s owned by a governmental entity they don’t get any tax base from that.”
The version of SB 1106 heard in the Senate Local Government Committee Tuesday is a little different.
Since the first draft, Price said they got feedback from legislators, the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce and some city officials to make changes. The newest version narrowed the language to only include existing facilities owned and operated by the highway district, not projects planned for the future. It also included a definition of “essential facilities” to further narrow down what this bill would impact.
At the request of the Boise Metro Chamber, Price also inserted language requiring “collaboration” between highway districts and land use agencies, like cities. These changes served to further zero in on the situation with the Garden City salt shed and anything similar to it.
Officials repeatedly questioned ACHD officials about how much of a role the salt shed played in bringing the legislation. In response, Goldthorpe said the facility had “everything to do with the genesis of this action.”
Even with the changes though, officials grew increasingly frustrated over the course of the call that ACHD was not taking their input and pulling the bill.
“All of us have read the bill and we’ve read the code, but have continued to share concerns,” McLean said. “I appreciate that you and the director pulled this together but I want to make clear my frustration that this was designed not as a time to discuss whether this would move forward and instead for it to be reviewed as written.”
Mixed reviews from commissioners
Not all the ACHD commissioners stand behind the legislation.
Newly elected Commissioner Alexis Pickering offered pointed questions for Price during his presentation about the bill. She also said the debate on the bill happened before she took office and she had not been “meaningfully included” in the discussions by being told about the bigger ramifications for the legislation before it hit the statehouse.
“It seems like we’re putting ourselves above any policies that the cities might enact to protect their quality of life and saying our essential facilities are more important than their facilities,” she said.
Commissioner Jim Hansen said he wanted to try and find a cooperative agreement on the legislation. He said the dispute is not about personalities, but stems from conflicts baked into the way laws governing ACHD and its relationships with other partners was written.
“There are some issues in the code that Steve Price has pointed out and we’re trying to navigate them, but we as policy makers need to recognize that these conflicts exist in code and let’s do a deep dive over the next year and address those,” he said.
There was never a motion or a vote to kill the bill, presumably because there wasn’t a majority in favor, but Commissioner Mary May also raised concerns about the lack of involvement of other localities on the bill. Commissioner David McKinney did not comment during the meeting.
“I do want to just go on the record and say I wish, and I think in a perfect world we would, have had these conversations prior to today,” May said. “When we have a bill going forward like this to get as much input as we can is always advantageous. I know there has been some outreach but perhaps we have fallen short on that.”