Boise’s historic districts, like the North and East ends, are some of the most desirable places to live in Ada County.
The large trees, proximity to downtown and the quirky collection of 20th-century homes ranging from mansions to bungalows have long been a draw for newcomers to Boise or long-term residents alike. But, all of the historic charm in these neighborhoods comes with a hefty set of rules about what sort of work can be completed on your home, what new homes can be built and special requirements to take down trees.
As the region’s drastic growth impacts the neighborhood, conflicts over historic preservation have erupted at Historic Preservation Commission meetings and even before Boise City Council in recent years. There have been several high-profile cases where property owners took down trees without permits or even demolished homes without proper permission from the city, sparking hours of testimony from historic preservation activists and neighbors.
The Boise City Council implemented a new ordinance in November requiring stiffer penalties for those caught demolishing historic structures or taking down trees without permission. This new set of rules allows the city to impose a six-month stop work order on a project operating outside of city code and allows the city to impose required mitigation measures.
But, Preservation Idaho says even the new rules haven’t been enough to stop people from breaking the rules and damaging historic elements of the neighborhood, which they say cannot be brought back once they’re lost.
“We have this ongoing frustration, where neighbors speak up and nothing seems to get done and we’re concerned that the message that has gone out to homeowners, to tree companies and designers is ‘ask forgiveness rather than permission’,” Preservation Idaho Executive Director Paula Benson said. “Once you do it and you explain you didn’t know, you beg forgiveness to figure out what you can do to move on.”
What does Preservation Idaho want to happen?
Benson said putting a stop work order and asking for trees to be replanted or an appropriate home rebuilt is not enough of a deterrent.
Instead, her group has long advocated for a certification process requiring contractors, designers or tree services who work in the city’s historic districts to go through a process where they learn the rules of the districts and agree to follow them. Benson said homeowners who are wealthy enough to do large renovation projects in the historic districts can pay their way out of a fine, but by putting the onus on contractors to follow the rules it ensures more compliance.
City of Boise spokesperson Maria Weeg told BoiseDev this isn’t something the city is considering at this time.
“City code is currently silent on the issue of licensing contractors,” she wrote in an email. “Creating a new ordinance and process to license contractors isn’t currently under consideration and if council chooses to explore the issue it would involve a substantial amount of public engagement, a lot of internal planning and extensive legal review.”
Josh Wilson, a planner with the City of Boise, told BoiseDev while there have been high-profile cases of people ignoring the regulations, the vast majority of residents and contractors follow the rules in good faith. He said the “egregious” violations have been highly visible, but they represent a small minority of projects.
He said former Historic Preservation Planner Ted Vanegas was working on an education program for contractors to learn about the requirements and receive an optional certification. But, since Vanegas left the city for another job the department hasn’t had the staff to work on the new program.
“That got put on hold due to staffing when we lost Ted and we’ve been struggling since in terms of historic staffing shortages,” Wilson said. “It is something we still want to continue to work on and ultimately get into place is this educational course.”
What has been happening recently?
Preservation Idaho pointed to three properties they say point to lax enforcement and protections from the city.
The first was the case of a non-contributing home at 811 McKinley Street cut into pieces and moved without any building permits or a certificate of appropriateness required for work in the historic districts. On February 10, the East End Neighborhood Association alerted the city to the house move and the property got a stop work order from the city.
This snagged the project down in a few months of delays before getting retroactive approval for the move and the home is now in Owyhee County. The owner, Tanner Leighton, said he and his wife originally were planning on just selling the appliances out of the home when they were approached by someone to purchase the house and move it off-site. He will go before the Historic Preservation Commission on July 25 for approval to build his new home on the McKinley lot.
Part of Leighton and his wife’s contract with the buyer said the purchasing party would handle all of the permits through their agent, Loraine Fisher and her company ID Reclaimed Materials. Fisher describes her experience in “architectural salvage of all types” on her LinkedIn page. She did not respond to an email with questions about the matter prior to publication.
“My wife and I, we do love where our future home will be and where our home was at that time and we like to go about things the right way and unfortunately we didn’t know the buyer would not follow through with our agreed upon contract,” Leighton said.
Benson said this situation shows contractors who work in the districts should be held accountable for problems, not just the owners.
“All along the way we’ve got in (this case) people again who have every right and obligation to know and don’t know and say ‘it was all a terrible misunderstanding and we’re sorry’,” she said.
But, unlike other homes demolished in the historic districts in the past, this one was non-contributing. This means it’s not considered a structure that contributes to the historic neighborhood based on a survey conducted of the neighborhood, so the structure can be moved or demolished without issue. The problem here was the lack of permits.
“If they just followed the correct procedures it would have been a simple procedure,” Wilson said. “…If they would have just followed the procedures it would have been straight forward but they didn’t do that.”
Demolition by neglect
Benson also pointed out her concerns with a home on Logan Street, also in the East End.
Today the home is boarded up and shaded in heavy tree cover and the exterior no longer has a discernible paint color. Owner James Howell, who purchased the property roughly 20 years ago, recently got approval to change the status of the home from contributing to non-contributing due to the damage. He told the commission at the June meeting he purchased the property and then did not have enough money to fix it and now it is out of compliance with flood plain regulations so he hopes it will be downgraded to non-contributing status so it can be demolished.
“I just didn’t have the money to put into it and it sat there for a long time,” Howell said. “It got to the point where I have it for sale because I still don’t have the money to put into it, but I need to do something with it. It’s in pretty rough shape.”
The home is currently listed for sale for $500,000. The listing also advertises the home’s non-contributing status to buyers who would like to build an entirely new home of their choice on the site in the coveted neighborhood.
The City of Boise has an ordinance on the books allowing property owners who purposely let contributing homes in the historic district degrade to be punished in court for “demolition by neglect,” but it wasn’t used in this case. There have been 38 code enforcement complaints on the property since 1998, but Wilson said the majority were related to overgrown weeds and the home being unsecured in 2017, not historic preservation concerns.
“That probably should have taken place 15 years ago, unfortunately,” Wilson said. “There wasn’t any punishment…In a perfect world we would have caught this a long time ago and gone through the correct procedure.”
Benson said allowing the property to degrade in this manner and not issuing any punishment effectively rewards property owners for boarding up homes and then collecting the payout on them when they choose to sell the lot.
“You’ve got an owner that got what they wanted by ignoring the law and lack of enforcement and lack of consequences by the city,” she said.
Howell could not be reached for comment for this story, but his real estate agent Mariah Sutton with Fathom Realty and Olive Branch Realty Group told BoiseDev she doesn’t think this property is a good example of someone not upholding historic preservation. She said there were several hurdles to clear with the property, including its condition at the time of purchase and the regulations on what Howell could do with it.
Sutton said there should be a middle ground in the code that preserves historic buildings while allowing property owners the flexibility to fix the buildings.
“It needs to be torn down to be rebuilt,” she said. “Hopefully it will become a beautiful build that is appropriate to the time period.”
Frustrations over North End trees continue
The third property Benson mentioned is at the corner of 19th and Ada streets in the North End. The project on this corner lot resulted in an uproar in 2021 when the owners took down ten trees without the correct permits required in the historic district. The project was appealed all the way to Boise City Council where council members ultimately approved a retroactive permit to take down the trees and their concept plan to reroute a canal on the property, as long as new trees were planted to replace those lost.
The property later ran afoul with ACHD when their canal relocation encroached on public right of way. Property owners Tom and Andrea Colgan could not be reached for comment.
Benson is frustrated with the current state of the property, which she said has not had the landscaping restored properly despite the city’s mitigation order.
“It looks like scorched earth,” she said, about the corner lot. “There is not a blade of grass on the entire lot. The trees were a start and the demolition of the house was next and they completely scraped the lot. Everything single thing that was there is gone.”
Wilson said the building permit for the Colgans’ project is still open, meaning work is still underway. He said projects of this nature can take a long time, but no one will be allowed to occupy the property until the landscaping required to replace the trees is complete.
“The way our process works is that when we go out for final occupancy to sign off and finish out those building permits we check to make sure the landscaping that is required is done,” he said. “When you construct a house like they’re doing, in order to occupy that structure those things are all required before occupancy.”