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Northwest Boise residents push back against housing density in zoning code proposal

Some in Northwest Boise has a bone to pick with the city’s proposed zoning code rewrite.

On Thursday evening, dozens of Boiseans from the city’s semi-rural fringe on the northwestern border packed the picnic area at Magnolia Park to express their displeasure with the city’s moves to rewrite the rules governing development. City staffers called on attendees one by one for two hours and wrote down pages of notes, but by the end of the event the overall sentiment the city is ignoring the neighborhood never dissipated.

[Boise once again reevaluating site for Northwest Fire Station]

With several members of the audience training their phone cameras on city staff, they relentlessly questioned the city’s vision for their neighborhood.

“Nobody over here wants high density housing and (the city) went and did it anyway,” a man in dark sunglasses called from the back of the crowd toward the end of the meeting. “Is there anything in here so there’s more checks and balances for us?”

A new code for a growing city

The city’s plan to rewrite the zoning code will not be implemented until the end of 2022, at the earliest. An early draft of the first module shows an increase in the density of homes allowed city-wide, with everything up to fourplexes and townhomes allowed on any residential parcel as long as they meet design standards set by the city.

This plan is squarely at odds with many residents of Northwest Boise’s hopes for their corner of the city. The neighborhood is full of large lots, and many residents have large gardens they flood irrigate from nearby canals and livestock of all varieties. With every new denser housing development proposed, the Northwest Neighborhood Association and its allies have fought it tooth and nail in hours-long council meetings and social media.

The conflict over the zoning code rewrite is yet another conflict point between homeowners who hope to slow dense development and others hoping for more housing to meet demand as the city’s housing crisis deepens. Vacancy for housing of all types is below one percent citywide, and city officials estimated in 2018 it needs another 1,000 housing units per year to, at least, keep pace with demand.

At Thursday’s meeting, several members of the crowd grumbled as the city staff presented their plans for the zoning code. To city staff and off to the side, several attendees expressed their anger at the disappearance of fallow farmland and other open space chewed up by developers for subdivisions at an increasingly rapid pace in recent years.

Annexed without representation

One major sticking point is the consolidation of residential zones in the new plan and the loss of the R1-A designation, which is the zoning district for residential development with up to two homes per acre. City Planner Andrea Tuning said there are no plans for agriculture zones within city limits because it’s an urban area, although the city will still allow urban farming operations with beehives, gardens and livestock in the new Large Lot Residential zone.

“That is perfectly highlighting the difference between what you’ve got planned and what we cherish and love,” one neighbor said after Tuning talked about how the city does not have specific designations for agriculture. “I just wanted to remark on how poignant that is.”

The biggest source of bad blood between Northwest Boise and the City is how the neighborhood came to join Idaho’s capital. Before 2014, this area of the city was unincorporated Ada County. This changed when the city, under the leadership of former Mayor Dave Bieter, annexed Northwest Boise. That brought the area under Boise’s jurisdiction. The area previously sat in the city’s area of impact – the roadmap for future annexation.

This means the neighborhood never participated in building Blueprint Boise, the city’s comprehensive plan written in 2011. The plan, and its focus on building a denser urban environment, is the framework for the zoning code rewrite and some in Northwest Boise say they feel left out in the cold.

‘What do we do?’

One of the attendees who came from Southeast Boise repeatedly pressed Tuning about why Blueprint Boise couldn’t be rewritten now that “everything here has changed.” Exasperated with the city official’s answers, she expressed her frustration with the lack of pushback from council on private developments they approve.

“What do we do?,” she said, pointing her phone camera at Tuning and looking for an answer. “I think (city council) should be more stringent about all of the dense housing projects they’re putting up.”

At one point in the meeting, someone from the audience suggested the formation of a Homeowner’s Association to escape the city’s zoning changes and allow only one home built per acre.

‘Not fair and equal representation’

Wayne Richey, a 2019 mayoral candidate and critic of growth, was in the audience and repeatedly questioned the city on parking standards. He said the city allowing apartment complexes with only one parking spot per unit causes problems with cars overflowing into nearby neighborhoods and limits the lifestyle choices of residents.

“Looking down the road to a Boise for everyone like the city talks about, these people can’t ever have a boat or a camper because they live in an apartment with one parking spot,” Richey said. “Fewer parking spots is a red flag that you’ve made concessions to the developer.”

Karen Danley, another 2019 candidate for city council and resident of Old Hill Road, spoke up to tout 2020 legislation she helped write requiring cities over 100,000 be elected by districts. This process will begin with this November’s election, which she argued will help address Northwest Boise’s feelings of being left out.

Under this new system, residents will only be able to vote for one city council member every four years, instead three of the six seats every other year.

“There’s nobody on city council that knows this area,” Danley said. “They may claim they represent all, but it is not fair and equal representation…This process, no matter how much you try and survey us, it comes down to a vote of city council and there is no one on city council that represents us.”

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev senior reporter
Margaret Carmel is a BoiseDev reporter focused on the City of Boise, housing, homelessness and growth. Contact her at [email protected] or by phone at (757)705-8066.

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