Boise could have a new ballot initiative to consider, but the City of Boise is also tackling the issue independently.
This Wednesday, the citizen group Boise Parks Association hit its deadline to turn in 6,823 signatures from registered City of Boise voters to put a question on the ballot next year about preserving the city’s parks and open space. If it gets on the ballot, the question would ask voters if they’d like to require a public vote of any sale, trade, gift, or change in use of any developed or undeveloped city property designated as a park or open space going forward in Boise.
After Boise Parks Association turns in its final batch of signatures tomorrow, the Ada County Clerk’s Office has 60 days to verify enough signatures to get before voters in November 2023. It is unknown exactly how long the clerk’s office will take to announce whether or not the initiative is qualified. Still, city staff estimates the Boise Parks Association has collected enough signatures to hit the threshold and 25% more than required to account for invalid signers.
This initiative, and a somewhat different city program to deed restrict all city parkland within city limits from development, comes after months of uproar in 2021 over the potential development of the 160-acre Murgoitio park site in Southwest Boise. Mayor Lauren McLean’s pitch to trade land in the Boise foothills owned by the Harris Family for the majority of the Murgoitio site to build a park on a portion of the land and homes below the median home price on the rest of it was met with fierce resistance.
The city eventually backed off the possible trade. Still, residents in the neighborhood, most of which live outside of city limits, continue to advocate for the park to be annexed into the city and built out.
If the ballot initiative qualifies, it will have several hoops to pass through before it can go into effect.
The code requires the initiative to go before City Council within 30 days of the valid number of signatures being verified for a public hearing. There, council members hear public feedback on the concept and can either adopt the ordinance as it is written or let it go to a vote instead.
If it’s not adopted at that hearing, arguments for or against the initiative will be drafted and on the ballot in November 2023. If it passes there, it could go into effect in mid-2024. (In 2019, in response to a pair of ballot initiatives on the development of a sports park and library, the council declined to adopt them, and they went to voters, who approved both.)
Council also can approve the initiative at that time, with three different options legally available. They can approve it as written, it can be approved and amended, or it can be approved and immediately repealed. If it’s repealed, then it will not go for a vote, and the initiative is effectively dead.
Boise Parks Association members rejoiced on Wednesday when they turned in their final batch of signatures, noting they collected over 10,000. Volunteers told BoiseDev they had “overwhelming” support from voters they encountered. David King, one of the organizers of the effort and behind the Friends of Murgoitio Park organization, said they are glad to see the city moving to protect parks, but they think voters want direct control with voting.
“We’re grateful they’re going in this direction and appear to be in agreement with us that parks are worth protecting, but we’re certain this extra legal protection is necessary to protect parks,” he said.
Regardless, parks will have more protections
The City of Boise moved its own proposal to legally protect its parks from development last fall when the idea of a ballot initiative was first floated.
After months of development, research into the history of Boise’s deeds for its parks, and internal discussions, the city proposed a new policy last spring putting a deed restriction on the city’s park sites, open space reserves, 200 miles of trails, and the Greenbelt. This would put language into the title of these properties, preserving it for the public’s use in perpetuity, which is more legally binding than a simple ordinance that the city council can repeal at any time.
“My view is if a future council would want to (remove the restriction), we’d have a member of the public with the ability to challenge that and say, ‘You gave me as a taxpayer that perpetual right and I’m asserting it,” Assistant City Attorney Rob Lockwood told Boise City Council on Tuesday.
But, a key difference in the city’s language and the initiative is what parks are protected. The city’s proposal would only offer the new deed restriction protection to the 95 park sites within city limits and ready for development. This means the protections would not be extended to the Murgoitio park site or any others in the unincorporated Southwest Boise the city purchased in the 1990s when the city planned to annex the area.
Currently, 42 of the 95 park sites within city limits already have deed restrictions and so do 14 of the city’s open space reserves, plus the entirety of the Greenbelt. Boise Parks and Recreation Director Doug Holloway said the city’s new policy means deed restrictions will be added to the additional unprotected properties, in some instances, add protections for parcels making up a larger park site that was left out of legal protections at the time of the sale.
“This is really a historic time,” Holloway said. “We discovered we have 50 plus properties that don’t have adequate protection that prevents them from being utilized in the future for anything that they were intended to be used for, which is as a park or an open space.”