The City of Boise continues to stand by its claim that no federal funds were used to purchase the Murgoitio park site after a month of accusations of secrecy from activists.
In July, neighborhood group Friends of Murgoitio Park held a press conference and made numerous social media posts claiming the City of Boise paid for the 160-acre park site with a Federal Aviation Administration grant that bars development on the site. But, records produced by the Boise Airport and the FAA show no definitive proof the federal government ever reimbursed the city for the $1.2 million purchase from the Murgoitio family.
The sale was completed roughly 30 years ago. Documents can be difficult to obtain from the time, and Boise Airport’s then-director John Anderson passed away in 2020.
BoiseDev reviewed dozens of documents since FOMP first brought forward the claim and continues to review more information as it becomes available.
[BoiseDev Project Tracker: Complete Murgoitio park coverage]
Airport officials say airport profits paid for purchase
Boise Airport spokesman Sean Briggs said the zoning of the property near the airport is what drives how it can be used in the future, and the rules related to FAA grants would not impact this situation as long as it complies with existing noise regulations. He says even if federal money were used to buy the land, it wouldn’t preclude homes from being built on the site.
According to airport planning documents, residential development is allowed on the Murgoitio site as long as it has noise protection built into the homes to shield residents from up to 25 decibels. Large swaths of Southwest Boise’s subdivisions fall under this same designation.
“The airport’s obligations would be the same regardless of funding, which is to protect the airport from non-compatible land use,” Briggs wrote in an email. “Since the Murgoitio parcel is in Airport Influence Area A, it is located in a zoning area that allows for residential development.”
Last month, Boise Mayor Lauren McLean said the City of Boise is further backing off any plans to annex the Murgoitio park site for development, but a report from an outside law firm specializing in FAA law will give a report to Boise City Council in coming weeks on what legally can be done with the property.
Instead of a federal grant, Briggs said the Boise Airport paid for the property using cash on hand earned from revenues from customers at the airport, like advertising, car rentals, parking charges, and other fees paid by airlines to use the facility.
What documents did the airport provide?
Briggs provided BoiseDev with documents listing all of the FAA Airport Improvement Program grants Boise Airport had been awarded since the early the late 1940s and a spreadsheet of all of the land acquired through FAA grants back to the 1960s. None of the documents made any reference to the Murgoitio park site being purchased with grant funds.
FOMP also filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the FAA searching for documentation related to federal funds being used for Murgoitio park. The agency told FOMP it had no records related to a purchase. The map the FAA maintains showing land purchased by the Boise Airport and its funding sources shows land both bought with enterprise funds and with FAA grants, showing that the airport sometimes does use its own revenue to increase its landholdings.
“The Airports Regional Office and the Helena Airports District Office (ADO) conducted a records search; however, we were not able to locate any records or files pertaining to your specific request,” the response letter provided to BoiseDev by FOMP said. “The Airports Regional and ADO have determined that this particular parcel did not include FAA involvement or AIP funding. It is shown on the Boise Airport’s Exhibit A, with an annotation that it was purchased with non-aviation funding.”
Did Boise hope for an FAA grant, but didn’t receive it?
Boise receives Airport Improvement Program grants nearly every year for a range of projects around the airport, not just land acquisition.
BoiseDev reviewed documents referencing potential FAA involvement in the purchase of the parcel. They include a memo referencing a “Plan Sponsor Certification” from 1993 about the Murgoitio purchase obtained by FOMP and an FAA document reviewing the Murgoitio purchase obtained by BoiseDev. City spokesman Bonnie Shelton told BoiseDev last month the “Plan Sponsor Certification” memo shows the airport planned to apply for funds but never completed the application. The actual document itself is not in the city’s possession, Shelton said.
Former Airport Deputy Director Linnae Costello recalls that the airport purchased the land with the intention of being reimbursed by the FAA, but the years-long process to get an Airport Improvement Grant might not have panned out. She reviewed all of the documents provided by the airport and the FAA about land acquired through federal grants and concluded it was likely the airport made the purchase intending to be reimbursed but very well might not have gotten the grant.
Costello said there was a range of competing priorities for grants when the Murgoitio site was purchased, like improvements to get the Boise Airport up to code with the then-newly passed Americans With Disabilities Act or a specialized fire training center on the property. The early 1990s was also a period of high growth for Boise and its airport, necessitating a range of projects to keep up with demand.
“The AIP grant program is not a guaranteed revenue stream,” Costello said. “It’s the FAA’s priorities as well as the pot of money, plus it needs to be reauthorized on Congress, and they’re not always real good about doing that. I find it credible that we intended to get reimbursement for this, and then it just got undermined by other priorities.”
Costello told BoiseDev she is “fairly certain” the airport used its own revenue to buy the Murgoitio site, but she would need to see a specific document showing airport property from the mid-90s to be absolutely sure.
Former City Council Member Sara Baker provided BoiseDev with an Idaho Statesman article from April 1993 about the Murgoitio purchase, which said the city used federal money to buy the property. She looked over the spreadsheets the airport provided and said she couldn’t make a conclusion from the documents unless the parcels listed were matched to land parcels on a map. But, she stood by the Idaho Statesman’s reporting at the time.
“However, the article below states clearly what we did,” Baker wrote in an email. “I can’t imagine it would have stated that if it wasn’t true.”
Former Mayor Brent Coles, who was on the city council at the time of the Murgoitio purchase and ran the city when the airport transferred the property to Parks & Recreation, said he also recalled Airport Director John Anderson approaching the city council about using FAA grants to purchase land to protect the airport from noise complaints. He did not have any additional documentation that the airport was given the grant for the Murgoitio parcel, but he suggested viewing Boise’s city council meeting minutes to find more information.
There was no discussion of the funding used to purchase the property in the meeting minutes BoiseDev reviewed in recent months, aside from references to the city considering seeking a grant to reimburse them for the purchase. Documents obtained by FOMP and provided to BoiseDev show the Airport leadership was in close collaboration with the City Attorney to draft a set of restrictive covenants to ensure the Murgoitio site became a park, but there was no reference in those documents to any restrictions required by the FAA.
Activists cast doubt on airport records
Despite these records, FOMP argues the property was purchased by the federal government and says the city ducked questions on the funding.
FOMP President David King, a land-use attorney, and CPA wrote in a recent online post that the city’s response that it used enterprise funds to purchase the Murgoitio property is an insufficient answer. He argues that the airport previously telling the press used its enterprise fund to purchase the Murgoitio site is misleading because that fund covers all of the airport’s money, including grants it receives from the FAA.
In response to viewing the Boise Airport records related to all of the land purchased with grant funds, King questioned who prepared the records and when they were put together due to the old age of the purchases it referenced. He said they don’t prove that the parcel wasn’t grant-funded because they are only summaries of grant transfers, not actual documents themselves about land acquisitions.
“The absence of an award on this list does not prove that a grant was never received, just that an airport employee didn’t summarize it,” King wrote in a statement to BoiseDev. “This is why an auditor would not be able to rely on the airport’s own summaries of its grants. Independent evidence is necessary to corroborate assertions. We need access to original records—all of them.”
Airport wanted open land to avoid noise complaints
Just because the Boise Airport might not have gotten FAA funds to purchase the Murgoitio site doesn’t mean they didn’t consider it, though.
To learn more about airport operations at the time, BoiseDev viewed six years of Airport Commission meeting minutes, packet materials, and other items looking for more information on the city’s acquisition of the parcel.
In the early 1990s, it was a major priority of Airport Director John Anderson and the Airport Commission members for the Boise Airport to purchase as much land around the airfield as possible, so it didn’t get pushed out from noise complaints from residents in SW Boise. In one memo, he noted the goal was to keep enough of a buffer around the airport so it could stay in its location “not just for the next 50 years, but also the next 500 years.”
Three retired Idaho Air National Guard officers echoed concerns about noise complaints impacting the airport earlier this month in a letter to Boise’s Planning & Zoning, urging them to consider the needs of the military at the airport as the Treasure Valley grows.
Airport staff brought the possibility of purchasing the Murgoitio site to the Airport Commission’s attention at a meeting at the beginning of December 1992. A staff report recommended the airport purchase the property from the Murgoitios to shield it from residential development using the airport’s cash reserves and then spend the next two years working to get reimbursed for the purchase by the FAA.
The meeting minutes did not detail the commissioners’ deliberation on whether or not to purchase the Murgoitio site and with what funds, but by the end of the month, it was purchased, according to a December 1992 city council agenda. Three months later, at the March 1993 meeting, the Airport Commission agreed that a park would be an appropriate use of the land. In April 1993, Boise City Council passed a resolution saying the Murgoitio property should become a park. It was later followed up with restrictive covenants when the airport transferred the property to the city in the late 90s.
Later that year, Anderson filed an application for several projects to be funded by the Airport Improvement Program in 1994, including a general aviation wash pad, baggage claim equipment, an ADA lift device to get the Boise Airport in compliance with the new law and to reconstruct taxiway “C” between runways. Funds to purchase land for noise mitigation were not listed.
The Airport did receive an Airport Improvement Grant in 1996 that did include funds for land acquisition near the airport, but the one parcel purchased with the grant funds was near Commerce Avenue, nowhere near the Murgoitio site.