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Design Review has a working agenda, but is it current

Robb Hicken
Robb Hicken

After two months of non-stop haggling in the news media, two projects rejected by the Boise Design Review Committee were overturned by the Planning and Zoning Commission.

The process, which dragged on for weeks, kept the two projects in the limelight. It put the DR committee at odds, not only with the planning commission, but also the community. We, the public, demanded an immediate decision, recourse and remedy.

We challenged the design review board’s purpose, process, and powers. We wanted to know who sat on the committee, their qualifications and their background. It was hard to imagine the committee would stymie growth when the construction industry was so severely crushed by the economic downturn.

The DR committee voted no on approving a $70 million project on Oct. 13.

At a hearing Dec. 13, the Planning and Zoning Commission overturned that original decision with an 8-0 vote.
Following the vote, two committee members – Elizabeth Wolf and Greg Ugrin – resigned. Both had voted against the Simplot Foundation’s Jack’s Urban Meeting Place project.

I talked with Bruce Chatterton about the project, the committee, and the selection of the two replacements for DR. Bruce oversees the Boise Planning and Zoning Commission and its subcommittee Design Review. 

“The design review committee took the guidelines and process they were given and applied them to the projects,” he said.

A project this size, this unusual and this demanding doesn’t come through the committee every day, he said. There are a number of projects the design review committee sees where the challenges are made, with little or no commotion.

Virtually all commercial, industrial, office and multi-family residential zones have Design Review approval requirements.

The process is designed to protect property rights and values, enhance important environmental features of the city and ensure the general appearance of buildings and site improvements are consistent. 

Put it this way, the design review answers the question of whether a McDonald’s or a park are at the entrance to town. Not that either is right or wrong, but the committee makes certain it’s what the commission or council wants.

And the process is decided upon by the city council, which is elected by the residents.

During this time frame, while Mayor Dave Bieter searches for replacements this would be a good opportunity for the City Council to look at the review process. There are no other major projects lined up for consideration. In this lull, ask questions, look at processes, consider alternatives, and propose changes.

If the design review members are resigning, something’s wrong with the system.

Chatterton talked about “pot belly pigs” as being domesticated animals; legal to own within city limits. The reasoning goes back to when pot belly pigs were pets – kept and cared for indoors. The point being, times have changed, but laws still allow people to keep farm animals within the city limits.

Look at the process Mayor Bieter and Boise City Council. Is there a necessary change to handle huge projects like the one that went before the DR committee? Use this pause for introspection.

We don’t need pot belly pig laws if no one is keeping a pig.
Robb Hicken is managing editor for the Idaho Business Review.

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