For the first time, Boise’s political leaders are explaining what they hope to see with the Murgoitio Park site in SW Boise.
As BoiseDev reported, the city started a process to annex the 168-acre site and an adjacent property owned by the Boise School District into the city. Instead of the park first imagined in 1997, the city could instead trade much of the land for houses, and add a smaller park or parks and trail connections.
The announcement caught significant attention from residents in the area – much of it negative. In the weeks since word leaked out, they’ve started a non-profit, launched a podcast and flooded the media, including BoiseDev, with questions – which we continue to work through to understand the process and bring facts to light in stories in coming weeks.
‘This is about housing’
Boise Mayor Lauren McLean told BoiseDev in an exclusive interview Wednesday that her priority is additional housing – and the Murgoitio deal is one major way to add to the city’s stock of homes.
“This is about housing,” she said. “Boiseans need housing and we could do what we saw Eagle do and what we saw the State of Idaho do and auction off land to the highest bidder. But we knew the most effective way to do it – and get open space and paths and parks – was to explore this proposal.”
The proposal, which isn’t fully formed or in public view, would include trading the Harris family for land it owns in the foothills above Barber Valley for the Murgoitio parcel. The Harris family would then develop an unspecified number of houses on the 168-acre park site.
The city couldn’t provide an estimate on the number of houses the site might include. But during a presentation on the annexation earlier this month, city officials said the site would hold zoning in line with the city’s compact residential development plan. That standard calls for between six and 15 houses per acre. The Murgoitio site is 168 acres. If the city uses seven acres for a park that leaves 161 acres. The math works out to between 960 and 2,400 houses on the site.
McLean said that the park site promise, made in the mid-1990s, is not what the city needs today.
“I think it’s important Boise not be held to promises made 20 years ago that were not acted on,” she said. “We are going to make sure this is worth it for Bosie residents and make sure we exact as much as we can out of the deal for Boise residents.”
Both McLean and City Council President Elaine Clegg repeatedly emphasized the Boise resident part. Right now, the Murgoitio parcel is surrounded on all four sides by unincorporated Ada County – none of the folks who live on the borders of the park are actually citizens of Boise. That means they can’t vote in council and mayoral elections – but also don’t pay taxes.
“To all the residents who are citizens of Boise I think I have a responsibility to look at this trade,” Clegg said.
Sewers and a park
Clegg, the longest-serving current member of Boise City Council, said the deal to build out a large regional park at the Murgoitio site wasn’t one-sided. It required the residents of SW Ada County to do something as well. In the 1970s, Clegg said, septic systems in the area began to fail, and the City of Boise agreed to accept residents on to the city’s sewer system.
“More than 40,000 residents of (SW Ada County) agreed that in return for sewer service and the promise of future city services – including this park – they would accept annexation,” Clegg said. “Twenty years ago, I started banging my head against the wall. Part of my first platform (as a city council member) was that we needed to annex Southwest Ada County.”
Clegg said the city held numerous meetings to hammer out annexation, but opposition overwhelmed the attempts. The city annexed thousands of acres of Southwest Boise in 1999, which was heavily opposed by residents in hours of heated meetings. The city hasn’t made an official attempt at annexation since, although Clegg and others have floated the idea and been met with pushback.
“They felt the return on city services wasn’t enough in return for what they would pay,” she said. “We have this 160-acre site one side of a promise, and the community had another side of the bargain and it never came to fruition despite invitations.”
“I understand their frustration,” McLean said of the blowback since the possibility of the park site being used for housing first appeared. “After you’ve lived next to empty land for a long time, you get used to it being empty. But those promises were made over 20 years ago.”
Clegg emphasized the city and developer would build a park – albeit smaller – on the Murgoitio site. And the city worked to build out a 20-acre park site inside city limits – about 6/10ths of a mile up Maple Grove Rd.
“We’ve worked hard over recent years to make sure Molenaar park becomes a spectacular park – open space, a pond and sports fields,” she said.
Housing the focus
McLean said her priority since entering office last year – aside from the pandemic – has been finding ways to ease the housing crisis in Boise and across the region.
“We’ve heard loud and clear from Boiseans for the last several years that housing is important,” she said. “We need access to housing that Boiseans can afford.”
Ada County continues to see the median price of housing hit record heights. In addition, average apartment rents continue to climb.
“We desperately need workforce housing,” McLean said. “The City of Boise, ACHD, private employers are unable to hire workers and staff because they have nowhere to live. Not just in the City of Boise but anywhere in this valley. We won’t survive economically if we don’t fix that premise.”
Despite the focus on Boise residents versus folks who live in the unincorporated area of Ada County, McLean said she understands why folks in an area she’s referred to positively in the past as “SWACA-land,” using the acronym for the Southwest Ada County Alliance neighborhood group are unhappy with the possible move.
“We knew we needed to look at and explore all of our options. I understand the frustrations of unincorporated Ada residents nearby. I remember when I was a parks commissioner – this was a piece of land out there that in theory would become something different – but no one had a plan for it, and now we are looking at what is best for Boiseans to get us the housing we need.”
The Harris family
The Harris family, who is developing the Harris Ranch subdivisions in Boise’s Barber Valley, hired a public relations firm and informed the media it was the developer behind the potential swap.
The family told BoiseDev it would trade land it owns in the Boise foothills north of Barber Drive in exchange for the Murgoitio site. The land is currently undeveloped, and the family has a binding agreement in place with the City of Boise not to develop the land as part of a Specific Plan that lays out development in the area.
The city signed off on – or entitled – the project to build a total of 350 single-family homes in the foothills above Barber Valley. So far, the developers have built or proposed a total of 231 of those housing units.
Clegg said the trade could include more factors on the Harris side than just the land. The city could require the Harris family to give up some of the housing units it carries entitlements for in the Barber Valley foothills.
“We are doing due diligence right now,” she said. “My early understanding is that there are still a fair number of homes scheduled to be built in the foothills at Harris Ranch. We won’t have details until due diligence is done – but there’s certainly a lot to look at.”
A City of Boise spokesperson told BoiseDev that a long-sought trail connection to the Barber Drive area to the Ridge to Rivers trail network could be part of the deal. Residents in the Harris Ranch subdivisions have long asked for a trail connection or easement over Harris-owned property, which the family has not acted on.
“We are assessing if (the Harris proposal) is appropriate and ensuring we get what we need to get out of it to benefit the residents of Boise,” Clegg said.
McLean emphasized that the Harris family approached the city with the idea.
“It would be inappropriate of us not to consider this, and to push hard to get as many elements out of a trade that we need to meet the needs of Boise residents today and into the future. This is an opportunity to make sure we are looking ahead and not looking back.”
BoiseDev’s Margaret Carmel contributed to this report.