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Murgoitio park trade: Records shed new light on possible swap – and what the city can and can’t do

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All eyes are on Boise City Hall in the next few weeks to see if the city council will go through with a land swap proposal to trade a long-dormant park site outside city limits for foothills land.

Public records obtained by BoiseDev shed new light on the proposal – including details on what exactly the trade would entail and the history behind the airport’s acquisition of the site back in the 1990s. The land trade proposal, which is valued at $15 million, would include the city obtaining several pieces of land in the foothills that are already marked to remain open space.

Last month, some in Southwest Boise erupted in protest at the news the City of Boise was considering a pitch from the Harris Family and its developer Doug Fowler to hand over a 160-acre parcel just outside of city limits south of Victory Road and develop it with a seven-acre park instead. The proposal, which is still not finalized, would trade the land for 575 acres in the foothills north of Harris Ranch, according to documents BoiseDev obtained through a public records request. 

[‘Boiseans need housing’: McLean & Clegg say Murgoitio site trade would help housing need, serve Boise taxpayers]

Residents who live near the Murgoitio site, both in and outside of Boise’s city limits, are crying foul on the plan because they say it takes open space from Southwest Boise and moves it to benefit Boiseans who live closer to the foothills. The Boise Airport purchased the park site from the Murgoitio family for $1.275 million in 1992 and has had a master plan for a large park since the late 1990s under former Mayor Brent Coles. 

At the time the park master plan was developed, the City of Boise intended to annex Southwest Boise and eventually build the park. But, after a series of heavily opposed annexations in the area in the late 1990s and early 2000s, most of this part of the city is still outside of Boise and the park never got built. Officials estimate now it would cost $30 to $35 million to green up the site to prepare it for a park. 

The site is currently leased back to the Murgoitio family for farming. 

Where is the foothills property?

Harris North Murgoitio
The Barber Valley hills above Harris Ranch. Photo: Don Day/BoiseDev

The land in the foothills owned by the Harris family they are proposing to swap with the City of Boise to develop the Murgoitio site in Southwest Boise isn’t currently intended for development.

Parcels must be of roughly equal value for local governments to execute land swaps in Idaho. To start the possibility of the swap, Fowler’s development company had an appraisal done of the foothills land and the entire package offered to trade is valued at $15 million. But, according to an email by Foothills Superintendent Sara Arkle obtained in a public records request, the land itself Fowler offered in the foothills is not worth $15 million by itself. 

A map obtained in a public records request by BoiseDev showing the parcels the Harris Family is proposing to swap for the Murgoitio site.

The package also includes the worth of the Harris Family agreeing to reduce its entitlements in their Foothills East subdivision down to 80 lots, instead of 153, according to a PowerPoint presentation shown during an executive session of Boise City Council.

“Boise Hunter Homes appeared before Boise City Council recently seeking approval on the Foothills East development. As part of SP01, (Harris Ranch) East and Harris North were called out as being able to accommodate 350 lots,” Bonnie Shelton with the City of Boise wrote in an email. “Harris North has developed 172 lots, leaving 178 lots remaining to be developed. The subdivision before council last week approved 59 lots that are part of the 178 remaining entitlements. The Harris’ would forgo 108 entitlements as part of this proposed swap, leaving 11 lots remaining. “

[Some Boise wells are drying up amid rapid development. What’s going on?]

While Harris Ranch SP01 is entitled to another 178 lots, the Harris’ have other agreements with the City of Boise to preserve much of the foothills land for open space, and last month, a related developer told the Boise City Council it couldn’t use any more of the entitled allotment of homes because of fire safety.

“We would have liked to put a few more lots on there, but with the restrictions of the fire department – we’re stuck with 59 (lots),” Todd Tucker with Boise Hunter Homes told Council on June 29th. 

The minutes for the approval of Harris North in 2015 also capped the units built in that portion of the foothills as well.

Bruce Eggleston with the City of Boise said during the 2015 meeting when outlining the proposal for the commission that the remainder of land undeveloped in Harris North – 371 acres – would be set aside for “permanent open space.”

Atlas Strategic Communications Vice President Douglas Self, who is representing the Harris Family, confirmed BoiseDev’s reporting on the number of entitlements left in the foothills near Harris Ranch and the access limitations.

As BoiseDev reported earlier today, a piece of land near the Murgoito site recently received an offer for $12.04 million for a 15-acre site, or roughly $800,000 per acre. It’s not yet clear what value the Harris proposal assigns to the 160-acre Murgoitio parcel.

Swap opens the door for hiking trails

The parcels the Harris Family is offering to trade are located on either side of the Idaho Power corridor north of Barber Road and another chunk further north into the foothills. In her email, Arkle told other city staffers the land near the power corridor was always planned for wildlife mitigation in the Harris Ranch Specific Plan, not housing. 

“The perk to citizens in acquiring this property is that it would become public land preserved for wildlife habitat and recreational use in perpetuity,” Arkle wrote on June 3. 

This trade could also open up more trail connectivity from Peace Valley Overlook Reserve to Table Rock, something Harris Ranch residents and other trail users have supported for years. Shelton said this move would preserve more essential habitat space in the area as well.

“For a decade, trail users have been asking for the City of Boise and Ridge to Rivers to provide a connection from Homestead Trail to the Table Rock trails,” Shelton said. “Due to the proximity to the Boise River Wildlife Management area, a critical habitat area protected and managed by Idaho Fish and Game, trail connectivity would not be possible without these key parcels.”

But what about the restrictive covenants?

Boise officials in the 1990s enshrined the plan to build Murgoitio Park in city code. 

Over the past three weeks, BoiseDev reviewed dozens of documents from the acquisition of the park to learn more about the legal restrictions placed on the parcel. At the time of the sale, the Murgoitio family did not place any restrictions on what the property could become. But, a year later Boise City Council passed a resolution with the intent to develop the site into a park. 

The Boise Airport followed this up with a range of restrictive covenants saying there should not be any residential or commercial development on the property and it should be used for a park in 1996. The city later purchased the property for $650,000 from the airport in 1998 for park development.

Attempts to reach city council members who served in office at the time were unsuccessful. Only former City Council Member Jerome Mapp, who now serves as the Planning Director for the City of Caldwell, responded to requests for an interview and he did not recall the park site in question or the vote on the restrictive covenants and the resolution to declare it to be used as a park. 

[Murgoitio family applies to annex land into Boise for 1000s of homes. But it’s not the park site]

Former City Council Member and ACHD Commissioner Sara Baker could not be reached for comment, but nonprofit Friends of Murgutio Park recently posted a letter from her opposing the swap on their Facebook page. The letter was to the Boise School District Trustees, requesting they do not entertain the City of Boise’s requests to annex a piece of their property to allow the Murgurtio site to be brought into city limits.

“Please do not allow the City of Boise to bully you into an accelerated annexation of your property without the highest degree of transparency and public input,” Baker wrote. “It appears that Boise is attempting to ram this annexation through while they have the majority of councilmembers from the North End, far from the location of this annexation and preparatory to benefitting their neighbors with a lopsided land swap.”

To move ahead with the swap, the City of Boise plans to consider removing the covenants their predecessors placed on the property and pay the Boise Airport back $625,000 to release the airport’s control on the parcel. The city previously removed the covenants on a small portion of the property to build a fire station in 2009.

Nearby neighbors and supporters of their cause raised objections in the past month to the legality of the city’s ability to remove the restrictions because the city itself made them, but an attorney unrelated to the dispute said the city has the high ground here. 

TJ Angstman, an attorney with experience in land use law and real estate deals, said as much as it pains him to say it because he agrees with the neighbors, the City of Boise’s actions are legal. 

“Based on what you’ve shown me, the city is within their rights to change their stance on their own property,” Angstman said, after reviewing the covenants and purchase documents. “If I could pick a client here, I would pick the City of Boise.”

The Murgoitio family declined to comment on the proposed land swap. 

Residential development allowed on site

Former Airport Director John Anderson opposed development in the area because it was in the flight path of a planned third runway at the Boise Airport officials were hoping to build, according to a 2001 planning document obtained by BoiseDev. 

As of today, there is a separate third runway located at the airport south of Gowen Field. It is primarily used for training flights by the Idaho National Guard, but it is not used for commercial or passenger air and there is no taxiway connecting it to the main airport. There is a possibility of the runway being built out for main airport use in the future, but there are no immediate plans in the airport’s current expansion plan. 

A letter from former Airport Director John Anderson about residential development on the Murgoitio site.

Like the bulk of Southwest Boise, the Murgoitio site is located in Airport Influence A. This means residential development is allowed and has always been allowed, but extra improvements to muffle up to 25 decibels of sound is required by the City of Boise’s building codes in the area of impact, according to city spokesperson Bonnie Shelton.

There are large swaths of Southwest Boise residential neighborhoods with this same classification, according to a map from the Boise Airport. This means those properties within the airport influence area, which are shaded on the map below, have avigation easements and require noise mitigation because of the airport. Residential development is still allowed in influence area B-1, but high-density developments and accessory dwelling units are not permitted.

A map of the airport influence areas provided by the Boise Airport.

The Federal Aviation Administration did review the Boise Airport’s purchase of the property, but Boise Airport spokesperson Sean Briggs said the federal government was not involved in the purchase of the Murgoitio site. He was unsure why paperwork was filed for an FAA review at the time. 

None of BoiseDev’s public records requests as of the publication of this article about the purchase of the property, source of funding, or any documents related to the FAA returned with any items showing it was funded by a federal grant. 

Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. Reporter
Margaret Carmel - BoiseDev Sr. 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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