A corner of Boise’s North End is getting a shake up.
On Tuesday, Boise City Council voted unanimously to reverse a decision from the city’s Historic Preservation Commission and allow the demolition of a 1940-era single-family home and reroute one of the rare uncovered canals left in the neighborhood. They also voted to issue a retroactive permit to take down nearly a dozen trees to make way for a new, larger single-family home in the North End historic district.
Neighbors have been crying foul over the project for months, alleging the new owners were the latest in a trend of people coming into the area and changing classic elements that made it desirable in the first place. City Council Members were sympathetic to the neighbors’ frustrations about the removed trees and the owner’s failure to follow city code, but they said the council had no choice but to approve the permits to clean up the legal snarl left in its wake.
This is similar to a handful of cases in the past year where property owners demolished buildings in violation of historic preservation regulations, leaving city officials to decide what enforcement measures they can levy after the structure is already gone. Some council members have signaled support for stronger enforcement for more of a deterrent, but low staffing at the city’s Planning and Development Services Department slowed down any reform efforts.
It all started with the trees
Tom and Andrea Colgan began eyeing the property at 717 N 19th Street in the hopes of moving in nextdoor to their grandchildren.
A few months ago, it all turned south when the project caught the ire of the neighbors when they cut down 10 trees without the proper permits required in the city’s historic district. The surprise lot clearing, plus the Colgans’ plans to move the Boise Canal from its traditional path diagonally across the lot surrounded by tree cover to the edge of the sidewalk to accommodate their new house rankled neighbors.
After two testy hearings at Boise’s Historic Preservation Commission, commission members turned down all of the permits, and the Colgans appealed it to City Council. They said the Historic Preservation Commission violated city code in the process and denied the demolition permit for the single-family home on the property even when it met all of the qualifications for demolition due to its status as a non-contributing structure to the district.
Jeff Bower, a land use lawyer representing the Colgans, told City Council during Tuesday’s hearing the couple did not intend to flout Boise’s historic preservation laws by taking down the trees. He said they were told by their tree service no permits were necessary and they couldn’t find any information on the city’s website saying so either.
“This isn’t a situation of willful ignorance,” Bower said. “This truly was a mistake and it’s a mistake my clients are genuinely sorry for.”
‘A major precedent’
Neighbors were unmoved by Bower’s apology on the Colgans’ behalf. During the hearing, nearby residents called for the city council to punish the homeowners for taking down the trees. They also opposed the project in its entirety due to the sweeping changes proposed to the lot where residents are accustomed to walking by and feeding the ducks in the canal.
NENA Historic Preservation Committee Member Kate Henwood argued the city will only encourage more illegal tree cutting if the retroactive permits are issued and the city approves the new home.
“This sets a major precedent,” Henwood said. “This wasn’t one tree, it was 10 trees. This is a huge loss to the canopy and the character of our neighborhood. We want to see that rectified and avoided in the future.”
City planning staff and city council members admonished the Colgans for breaking the city’s rules, but they acknowledged they had no choice but to retroactively give permits to allow the trees to be taken down so they could impose a requirement on the Colgans to plant more.
Council Members give the go-ahead
City Council Member Patrick Bageant said the only remedy moving ahead is to approve the permit to take down the trees and require the Colgans to come back to the council on August 17 for the council to approve their tree mitigation plan. He requested they install seven large, fifteen-foot trees on-site and donate to the city’s ongoing Trees Challenge to add more to the city as a replacement.
“This is a mess and for people watching our job is to figure out what to do with it, not trying to figure out what should have been done the first time around,” he said.
Council Members agreed with Bageant’s motion, as well as his move to approve the canal relocation with the condition the canal company gives written approval. City Council President Elaine Clegg said it would be unfair to other property owners and decades of builders to deny the application to move the canal.
“To the rest of the North End, there are only three places (the canal has) been left uncovered,” she said. “To now say because there are only those few places left that property owner needs to be treated differently doesn’t meet any fairness in my mind nor does it meet the law.”