Boise leadership could be steering away from a proposed land swap with the Harris Family to develop the Murgoitio park site on the city’s southwestern fringe.
On Tuesday night, Boise City Council held an hour-long work session to discuss the park site, the cost of annexing Southwest Boise and potential next steps in the complex land swap process. This issue erupted last month when the City of Boise announced a proposal from Harris Ranch Developer Doug Fowler to swap the 160-acre Murgoitio park site and develop it in exchange for land in the foothills.
Some residents of Southwest Boise harshly objected to the loss of open space and the park site, which was master-planned as a park since the late 90s. They’ve formed a nonprofit, hired an attorney and held protests outside of Boise City Hall and the Boise School District office, plus distributed dozens of bright green signs around the city.
Is council looking for a compromise?
Tuesday’s work session was informational only and no formal votes were taken. It’s not clear yet how Boise City Council will proceed, but City Council President Elaine Clegg showed some signs of softening to the neighborhood’s cause.
City Council is slated to take up a vote to remove restrictive covenants on the property requiring it is developed into a park next week. Clegg wondered aloud if the city could do something else besides just opening the parcel to all kinds of development without a nod to the neighborhood.
Last month, Clegg spoke extensively to BoiseDev, and told us she felt she had a “responsibility” to look at the trade. Now, the council president indicated she might be looking to slow the process down.
“In my mind, I wonder if we shouldn’t just think about something besides just removing (the covenants) and take some time to think about if we should revise them or put some idea in whatever we adopt that conforms to what we believe is the future of that area,” Clegg said yesterday.
“That would include housing, in my mind at this point as a highest and best need for a lot of pieces of land in this valley, but it also includes recognizing the community values out there and wondering what it is we should ensure gets preserved, if you will.”
City Council President Pro Tem Lisa Sanchez also showed some sympathy with the neighborhood. Prior to Tuesday’s meeting, Sanchez said she hadn’t seen the master plan drawn up for the park and didn’t quite understand the neighborhood’s anger. Now, she does and “looks forward to a resolution” after years of compounding decisions led to the park remaining undeveloped.
“I think prior to seeing (the master plan), when I kept hearing ‘we were promised a park, we were promised a park’ I didn’t understand, but to have it down on pen and paper and have that visualization I am starting to understand why folks are so upset,” Sanchez said, which earned a satisfied murmur from the crowd.
Later, at the evening meeting during an unrelated discussion, City Council Member Patrick Bageant had harsh words in response to former Mayor Brent Coles. Coles was mayor at the time of the acquisition of the Murgoitio park site. He gave the city council a late piece of testimony objecting to the annexation of a 120-acre industrial park in South Boise prior to the construction of a fire station, and Bageant brought up the challenges to fund Murgoitio park.
“I’m sensitive to the issue and I’m sensitive to the concern from (Coles), particularly because there was a mayoral administration 20 years ago that put us in a real situation with this park property and poor planning and poor infrastructure fees sufficient to support the promises made to the community,” Bageant said.
Why isn’t SW Boise annexed yet?
It took years of history in Southwest Boise to get to this point.
The bulk of Tuesday’s presentation was dedicated to Parks Superintendent Jennifer Tomlinson’s overview of the complex reasons behind Southwest Boise, including the Murgoitio site, still being outside of city limits decades after officials hoped to annex it. It began with a series of septic tank failures in the 1970s, which resulted in the county issuing a moratorium on development until the city agreed to start paying for sewer service out to the area with the assumption it would be eventually annexed.
Between the 1970s and 1990s, the City of Boise spent millions toward building sewer infrastructure in Southwest Boise after residents opted not to form their own sewer districts. According to state law at the time, accepting Boise sewer service signaled consent to annexation later.
Boise started annexing sections of the southwestern portion of the city in the late 90s and early 2000s, but they were heavily opposed by residents, Tomlinson said. The most recent annexation in 2004 ended in multiple lawsuits against the City of Boise and took years to complete. After that, the city hasn’t pursued it since.
Annexation doesn’t come cheap
But, now that the Murgoitio issue has arisen, city officials could take a second look at adding to the city.
Tomlinson presented the council with a preliminary feasibility analysis of annexing Southwest Boise and its 34,000 residents into city limits. Under state law, the city can only take land under its control if over 50% of residents consent to annexation. Property owners consent to annexation either through their city sewer connection, as long as the sewer connection is pre-2008 when the Idaho Legislature changed the statute, or through written consent in their subdivision planning documents.
The city’s analysis found the entire Southwest Boise area is eligible for annexation with 63% of properties consenting to annexation with these criteria. But, it’s not cheap to expand the city.
Once Boise annexes a property, it is immediately responsible for expanding services to those residents without the benefit of the extra tax base accumulating over time. Annexed properties would see a double-digit percentage tax hike to help pay for the extra services over time, but Tomlinson said it would take time to pay for.
“I’m not saying it’s exactly like putting the services on a credit card, but it’s kind of something similar,” she said. “We have to front the money to get the services out there.”
Boise’s Senior Budget Analyst Mike Sherack told City Council that annexing all of Southwest Boise would increase the city’s requirement for police officers to 60 or 70 officers, vehicles for them, a new fire station in the area and a fire company to staff it. Plus, the city would have to green up two more park sites in Southwest Boise, including the 20-acre Pearl Jensen park site.
The area would also likely need a new library branch, more streetlights, additional animal control services and additional city staff to keep up with the demands for various services from residents.
How to pay for the park?
And then there’s the issue of funding Murgoitio park itself.
Boise has several different classifications of parks based on side. Murgoitio was envisioned to be a regional park with dozens of sports fields, akin to Optimist Sports Complex in Northwest Boise. Tomlinson said these types of parks are costly to the city and are always developed in collaboration with a donor, like Ann Morrison Park.
The City of Boise collected roughly $10 million in impact fees, one-time fees paid by developers to build parks or public safety facilities, in Southwest Boise since Murgoitio Park had a master plan put together, Tomlinson said. Of these fees collected, $4.2 million went to nearby Molenaar Park and Peppermint Park and another $6.2 million went to regional parks city-wide.
Tomlinson said homes in the area of impact paid impact fees, but at a considerably lower rate than those homes within the city limits. This is due to Ada County not updating its impact fee policy since 2006, while Boise raised its fees along with inflation. This left a lagging amount in the Southwest Boise planning area account, which is another factor limiting what funds are available to potentially develop the Murgoitio site into a park.
And with impact fees being one time, even if Southwest Boise is annexed the amount of additional revenue is limited after decades of building in the area left few undeveloped parcels.
“You can see where we’re having the compounding effect of our deficiencies,” Tomlinson said.