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Ada County pitches more water-wise landscaping, looser ADU requirements in zoning code rewrite

Boise isn’t the only locality rewriting its zoning code. 

In the past year, Ada County also launched an effort to rewrite its zoning laws governing what can be built where in unincorporated lands outside of city limits. The existing code had its last major update in 2000 and planning officials say it was time to make changes as Ada County continues to boom, but also to make the code more modern and easily usable by changing its format. 

Ada County Community Planning Manager Leon Letson said the county isn’t shooting for sweeping changes or large boosts to dense infill development with this rewrite, but they hope to build a code better focused on melding agricultural in rural Ada County with residential homes in the area as the county grows.
[‘Focusing on people’: Zoning rewrite proposal shrinks parking minimums, lot sizes, adds neighborhood protections]

“This isn’t a landscape change in terms of what we’re focusing on,” Letson said. “We really just want to make our code easier to read, modernize it and continue to focus on the agricultural uses in unincorporated Ada County that have long been the backbone of what Ada County is.”

The county will hold open houses on the proposed rewrite on April 20 and 21 from noon to 8 p.m. The open house will be at the Lake Hazel Branch Library on Wednesday and the Ada County Courthouse on Thursday. 

Bigger focus on being water-wise, more ADUs

Water is king in a high desert climate like Southwest Idaho. 

In order to help make future development more water-efficient, Ada County is looking at changing its landscaping requirements in the new zoning code. The proposal will not ban lawns or traditional landscaping, but the county is currently exploring incentives for new homes to have xeriscaping and native plants instead of grass.

The county also wants to let larger developments innovate on water use by finding new ways to be efficient and allowing the reuse of recycled wastewater. This is likely a nod to the foothills planned community Avimor, which has instituted multiple water conservation measures and is planning for more water reuse projects in the future. 

“Our commission has asked us to focus on water quantity and water quality to encourage more water-wise like use and how to preserve more water and be more cognizant in that way,” Letson said. “…That’s our key topic: What can we do on the waterfront to preserve as much as we can?”

The proposed code also includes provisions to keep irrigation ditches and other facilities daylighted where possible, allows rain capture and water recharge areas to help water flow back into the earth to return to the aquifer.

Accessory dwelling units is another area Ada County is making changes. The current code requires ADUs to be located on the second floor of a building, like over a garage, and have a maximum living space of 900 square feet. The only people who can live in the building are an employee of the property owner or a family member. 

But, the proposed code wants to loosen these requirements. The county is considering allowing the living space to be located on the first floor so its accessible to elderly or disabled residents, increasing the maximum living space size to 1,200 square feet and removing the requirement for the resident to be an employee or a family member. A renter could live in the ADU as long as the owner lives on the property. 

What about the wineries?

Alcohol sales, particularly wineries in the Eagle foothills, have been a hot topic at the county in recent months.

Residents living in the American viticulture area in Eagle are frustrated with the growth of wineries in their neighborhood and have raised concerns about traffic, wineries hosting large events, noise impacts and other concerns about the rural areas. City planning staff has not decided yet what changes it might make to the zoning rules for wineries, breweries and event centers in unincorporated Ada County. 

The county is taking the next month to develop changes to its 75% rule ordinance, which requires signatures for any business selling alcohol in the unincorporated county.

“We are continuing to work on these standards and will bring a separate amended ordinance forward in the near future. It is felt that these types of uses require further outreach and research,” Ada County Development Services spokesperson Brianna Bustos wrote in an email.

One possibility the county is considering is an amendment to the comprehensive plan with guidelines for projects in the Eagle foothills AVA.

Odds and ends

There are a host of other smaller changes Ada County is considering as well. 

The draft proposal includes matching Ada County’s setback requirements along the Boise River to match the City of Boise’s code. This would require a 200-foot setback from the river for most construction and an additional 300 feet if there are Great Blue Heron rookeries in the area. 

The county is also proposing keeping the standard for approval to build on a slope the same, but a hillside development permit would only be allowed on a slope with a grade of more than 25%. The current code requires a hillside development permit for a slope steeper than 15%.

Ada County also proposes to make some changes to its requirements around roadside produce stands. It changes the code to say 90% of the produce sold at the stand must be grown on the premises, instead of simply saying “a majority.”

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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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