Breakfast Series report – Urban in Idaho: Smart planning for future growth

Kim Burgess//October 23, 2018

Breakfast Series report – Urban in Idaho: Smart planning for future growth

Kim Burgess//October 23, 2018

Moderator Sarah Reed, a Hawley Troxell attorney, addresses the panelists: (l-r) Michelle Groenevelt of city of McCall; Diane Kushlan of Kushlan | Associates; Ivan Sim of Idaho Power; Dana Zuckerman of Capital City Development Corp.; and Patricia Nilsson of Canyon County. Photo by Liz Harbauer.


Idaho is growing fast, by some counts faster than any other state, and the growth is concentrated in the southwestern counties. The population boom brings prosperity, change and challenges. For instance, this summer, the median price for Canyon and Ada county houses hit record highs of $230,000 and $300,000, respectively.

At IBR’s Oct. 2 “Urban in Idaho” breakfast series, five panelists discussed the growth they’re seeing in their respective jurisdictions and the challenges that come with it. They also addressed where this growth will lead them in the coming years.


The Panel

Michelle Groenevelt, community and economic development director, city of McCall

Diane Kushlan, principal, Kushlan | Associates

Patricia Nilsson, director of development services, Canyon County

Ivan Sim, director of corporate services, Idaho Power

Dana Zuckerman, chairwoman, Capital City Development Corp. and founder, Dwell Boise

The complex picture of growth: housing, roads, land use 

Patricia Nilsson:

photo of patricia nilsson
Patricia Nilsson

I work with a lot of the smaller communities in Canyon County and describing what planning is can be a little obtuse to people. I say it’s trying to have everybody in the community have the best day possible. So they have a house that’s safe and meets their basic needs; they have a job they can go to; their kids go to a good school that maybe they can walk to, they don’t have to drive.

It’s just tackling everything, but it does to me come down to that housing component. If you don’t have the housing secured, those other issues you really can’t deal with, but you do have to deal with them all the time. I don’t have the luxury of focusing on one thing.

A home for sale in the Harris Ranch development in East Boise. File photo.

Dana Zuckerman: 

I’m thankful that this breakfast discussion is about all components of growth because having a discussion of one element is not at all helpful. I think the example of Harris Ranch is perfect. I think Harris Ranch is really well done. It’s a dense community very close to downtown Boise, and it offers a variety of levels of housing – there’s housing for older people, for new families, for people who are in between. They live close together, there’s plenty of open space, all really well done.

There’s a serious problem that there aren’t enough roads that lead out to Harris Ranch. I know we are limited by our geography with the river and the mountains, but I’m stunned that we allowed that many houses to be built and only have two or three roads that allow you to access them, and one of them often has rock slides. Harris Ranch is a great success and great model for future development, but we have to have twice as many ways to get out there as we do now, otherwise it can’t be a success.

Ivan Sim:

Ivan Sim

From an Idaho Power perspective, we plan for 20-year outlook. Looking at the horizon, every two years we publish our IRP (Integrated Resource Plan) on how we will be able to provide the demands and energy we need today and moving forward. That’s something we refresh every two years with a 20-year outlook.

One thing we focus on from a utilities perspective is we facilitate our communities to be able to thrive. We’re well positioned from a resource perspective, we’ve got a great balanced portfolio.

A lot of things we focus on from a planning perspective incorporate some key components which are a good stewardship of our resources, managing our costs, our reliability, as well as helping the customers’ needs. Those are guidelines in which we operate to make sure that we plan for and facilitate a lot of those economic development opportunities. We do work closely with other planners and economic development organizations.

Diane Kushlan:

Diane Kushlan

As I know more than one jurisdiction, it’s hard for me to respond to this question in terms of what drives planning decisions. Ideally, as Patricia touched on, it should be driven by the expectations, desires and values of the community.

One time I was working for Sun Valley and Garden City at the same time, it was a little bit schizophrenic. But certainly, both of those communities have their own unique identities and unique objectives, so what drives decisions in those two communities are totally different. I think what drives planning decisions should be a balance of these issues, a balance of both public needs and public desires and what they value, as well as the individual property we’re developing.

Michelle Groenevelt: 

Michelle Groenevelt

I would say within McCall, it’s our McCall area comprehensive plan that really drives most of our decisions. That’s really the communities’ vision. We generally look out 20 years for all of our master plans, which really help dictate policy programs and projects, those sorts of things. I think that’s the role of planners to really look long term. There’s probably not that many people who generally think out 20 years; it’s just not a natural human condition. I think that’s where some of the tension comes in is trying to balance the short-term needs and issues with that longer-term vision and sticking to that. That can be tough in our political system too.

Synergy between government agencies and businesses 

Ivan Sim:

As a reminder, our service territory stretches all the way from Riggins in the northwest to Blackfoot in the east and a pocket of Salmon. So, our service territory is pretty broad and diverse. Working with and collaborating with our partners – whether from a government perspective, different agencies, new leaders, private enterprise – it’s critical. Having that communication and collaboration for us to be able to really provide the energy that all of you need and our communities need is important.

As it relates to the question about housing, you might be surprised given our service territory and how broad it is, often we have employees that are housed in some unusual areas. There are challenges that we also face in how we make sure that our employees have affordable housing to support them on the job.

Diane Kushlan:

I think planning is setting the table for business and economic development. It’s critical to have a close working relationship with them. Communities need to clearly articulate what their vision is for economic development and set in place the right regulatory tools to make that happen. I use Garden City as an example, which 10 years ago we thought about as a drive-through city, and they made a real clear articulation of their goal to be a destination. You see that happening now in the waterfront district and the number of craft beverage companies that have come in and food production. I think that happened because the city was very clear about this goal of what they wanted. They put the regulations in place to make it happen.

Downtown McCall. File photo.

Michelle Groenevelt:

I think in terms of setting the table, I like to think of infrastructure as a really important piece of that. In McCall, we’re starting to expand how we define infrastructure, so housing is really a huge piece. We typically think of water and sewer and that’s our infrastructure, and electric. But I think housing is a huge piece of that, as well as fiber.

If anybody has been up to McCall recently, we’ve just started our downtown reconstruction project, and it’s in the original four blocks of our town. That first step is getting all new utilities under the ground. The idea is there’s going to be a $6.5 million investment, so anybody who owns a property just needs to build a building because everything is going to be there. We’re laying the conduit for the fiber really thinking what we want our downtown to be. I think that infrastructure piece is really important.

The role of the urban renewal district and taxing permit financing

Patricia Nilsson:

We work with our city partners; working in the county you don’t have urban renewal. We have large investments outside some of our smaller towns, and they desperately need some of that. So, I need a rural renewal district to help some of the towns. If anyone wants to work with me on that, I’d welcome it.

Diane Kushlan:

In our practice, we work with a number of communities on urban renewal plans, and there’s a variety of reasons that they’re pursued. What drives it for the most part is the local government is limited in the amount of debt that they can accrue. So, you see it for revitalization purposes, for economic development, for needed infrastructure. It’s certainly a very important tool.

Michelle Groenevelt:

McCall has a really good example — we have three years left with our existing district. So, that’s really what’s created Legacy Park and connected our business community and created that sense of place. It’s created a lot of vibrancy within our downtown, as well as building a lot of that infrastructure that typically the city wouldn’t be able to afford like some of the sidewalks in that area.

After we did the Legacy Park project, we had one business owner come up to us and say their sales increased by 30 percent, just due to the number of visitors who were walking by and stopping in that particular store. We’re right now looking at creating a new district, specifically in the downtown core where we’re about to make that investment and a little bit to the south.

It’s really critical for small communities. I think it’s probably the only way you can do those really transformative projects just because they’re too expensive for small communities. It’s an important tool.

McCall and the local option tax 

Michelle Groenevelt:

We are one of the lucky communities to have the local option tax, and we recognize that. It’s really critical for us because we’re a community of 3,000 year-round residents, but on weekends you get up to 15,ooo to 20,000 people. You have to plan, especially your infrastructure, for that peak time.

When we have 20,000 people in town, you still want your toilets to flush and your water to run. You’re building a much bigger system for a lot of these things, and there’s a lot of impact on your roads and parks and things like that. We actually currently have two LOTs in place. One of them we call our tourism local option tax, and that’s a 3 percent tax on hotels and short-term rentals. That’s managed by a citizen group. They review applications, there’s criteria in which you have to qualify. We’ve recently added housing to that. Then, it’s a recommendation to city council. That’s the way that money is allocated.

We also have the streets LOT, which is a 1 percent general sales tax on everything except groceries. That follows a 10-year streets plan. So for example when I was mentioning our downtown core project, that’s funded mostly through our local option tax. Again, a project we probably wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise, but it’s critical to our economy and our downtown.

So, both of those LOTs serve a really important function within McCall. I think sort of the lesson that we learned when we were trying to get the streets LOT passed was to be really specific about the projects that you’re going to do with your local option tax money.

Ivan Sim:

Along with that and a compliment to the city and CCDC there, they’ve done a lot of great things with the central district.

Whether it’s that local option tax, these are all just tools. We really need a shared vision of what it is we want the area to be and how we utilize these tools to enable that. So without that shared vision, mission and purpose, what you get is a disparity of opportunities and outcomes. I think part of utilizing these tools is for the benefit of the local communities.

Patricia Nilsson:

I’m so grateful for the experiences that I’ve had in the Treasure Valley. The local option tax for transit is so critical to some of the small towns and their labor forces. With the low wages that we have, the percent of their income that has to go to their transportation cost is terrible. It’s such an economic drag on those families, those communities. It’s a real human level, the need for those transportation services. I was hopeful with the commitment to widening the interstate in Canyon County, which is very needed, hopefully that will be the next big thing that we can all accomplish.

Dana Zuckerman:

Dana Zuckerman

I just want to add that local option tax, while it might be very important to smaller communities, it would be huge in Boise. We keep talking about the lack of affordable housing. As property prices rise near the downtown, people are going to have to move further and further out. The only way to have those areas that are further out feel like they’re closer into downtown is with better transportation. I don’t mean cars and wider streets, I mean public transportation.

I’ve been fortunate to live in a lot of very big cities. I worked in Chicago and made next to nothing, but took a bus 40 minutes into my office every day and it was easy. The bus came every five minutes. Living 40 minutes outside of downtown felt like nothing because you could read on the bus on the way there, talk to the person next to you, get some work done. As long as there’s an easy way to get from wherever you are to your job, and it’s not in your car, it shrinks the distance.

Living way down State Street in an affordable apartment would feel very different if we had an easy way to get people downtown without them having to give a lot of money, without having them to have to find a parking place. I’m really tired of building parking garages. I think we have so many other things we can do to move people around to get them out of their cars, to make life more affordable and enjoyable, but we need to build a lot faster. None of us have enough funding for that.

Tools and practices from other states 

Diane Kushlan:

I’ve gotten this question a lot. The first thing to say is that we’ve got some pretty good tools already. We’ve got a constitution that authorizes police power to protect public safety and general welfare. We’ve got a great planning statute; it’s pretty broad and communities can use it. The problem is that we don’t use the tools that we have to their fullest extent. That is because planning is resource deficient. We’re one of only three states that does not have a state planning office that can provide the needed resources to the small communities. They have engineering tax, and they have administrative people that are doing the planning for them.

Communities can’t resource planning because funding for it comes out of the general fund. Having been a former planning director, it’s hard to compete with the police chief for money. He’s got a better story to tell. We need to somehow resource planning more effectively than we have in the past.

Beyond that, I think there’s some simple stuff and some more complicated things that we could learn from other places. Every other state that I know has impact fees. The number one reason they have them is for schools, and Idaho is not allowed. We have about six kinds of infrastructure that can be funded through impact fees, schools are not one of them, and I’ve never figured that one out.

The other issue that I’m sure Michelle can speak to better than I can is the one of inclusionary housing. The state of California mandates inclusionary housing provision be a requirement in those large developments.

The third suggestion I would make is to have independent wards make decisions on annexations that have very specific criteria. It’s very effective in a lot of other states. It would get us out of a lot of these squabbles that we have with cities and counties.

Michelle Groenevelt:

I think Diane hit a lot of the big ones, so thank you. I think there are other tools when you look at other states and other communities. I think in Idaho, in general at the local level, we’re a little limited in our funding sources. We’re fortunate enough to have the local option tax, which helps with some of it, but it doesn’t solve all of our issues, and it would be nice to have some more tools available or authorized by the state.

How growth pays – and doesn’t pay – for itself

Patricia Nilsson:

We’re going to be having a workshop with all of our taxing jurisdictions through the initiative of the county commissioners, the county controller and county clerk at Canyon County, who are very concerned about the cost of growth. They’re very concerned that it doesn’t pay for itself. It really came from the county clerk, which is kind of an odd source to observe that and to be concerned about it.

So far, all of the towns say, “Yes, we want to understand that issue better,” because they don’t have a lot of resources to waste. They want to grow and need to grow in a fiscally efficient manner.

I had to tell my colleagues at a COMPASS meeting, it was a simple action to approve these whole community projects, and I said I just want you to know apart from all the miles we’re funding for ACHD, this 500-hundred-foot stretch of paving in the city of Notus is absolutely huge for them. A lot of our communities struggle with their investments, and they successfully invested in water and sewer and they’re desperate for connections. We’re trying to help them with the growth that will help with the public investments that they’re paying on.

We view our relationships with the cities as partners. The mantra I tell my staff is when the cities do well, the county does well.

Dana Zuckerman:

I think a new development, especially a housing development that is the traditional kind of housing development, needs to pay for itself. I don’t see why the city should have to pay for the roads and all the infrastructure that leads up to the development.

On the flip side, any time anybody builds urban infill, I think those fees need to be waived. People who are choosing to live downtown aren’t using roads at the same rate as people who live 15 miles out in a brand new subdivision. A lot of, if not all, the infrastructure is already there, which incentives people to live closer into downtown and thus alleviates traffic and all of the other problems we have as well. The developers that are helping create sprawls should have to pay greater impact fees — both pay for themselves and incentivize people to live closer.

Diane Kushlan:

I think this is an interesting question for me because it connects with a lot of other issues. Studies have shown that the typical single family in a single-family house does not pay for itself, the lease and property taxes. I’m sure that’s the case in Idaho where we allow for this 50 percent exemption for owner-occupied properties up to $100,000. To me, that shifts the property tax burden to commercial and industrial and rental housing.

You could maybe make an argument that rental housing is subsidizing owner-occupied housing. That, in turn, creates a conscious or unconscious incentive for local government to zone a lot of commercial property because it’s high-value assessed property.

That, to me, connects with, then do we need all this commercially zoned property? We have 20 square feet of commercial property for every person in this country. The next highest amount is in Sweden where they have 8 square feet of commercial property. What better land use patterns could we create if we didn’t have that phenomenon happening?

Patricia Nilsson:

The agricultural land base in Canyon County is not land waiting to be developed. It has a tremendous impact on the fiscal sustainability of Canyon County in that it really subsidizes everything else. The fact that we’ve been able to direct growth, I think over 97 percent of the population growth has been in the cities.

I monitor the ag exemptions through the assessor’s office, and we only went down 90 acres last year. We have more acres that received a property tax exemption for agriculture than we did 10 years ago. Now we’re not making more land, but people are understanding the value of it or the value of the crops and the commodities that grow on it.

The role of the public process 

Michelle Groenevelt: 

We had a recent denial of a project. Actually, in McCall, we really go out of our way to get a lot of public input on all our plans. We’ll spend several years doing crazy things like going to the Boise farmers market and try to capture our local residents, as well as our second home owners and visitors. We’re a little bit unique in that we’re catering to all those different groups.

The important thing for me is that those governing boards and decision makers stay true to the vision. It can be a lot of pressure when specific development proposals that might be really good for the community and meet your plans and are probably more in line with the long-term vision come up with a lot of public opposition. I think it’s important just to always remember that longer-term vision even if it’s not politically popular at the moment. I think that’s especially important in our community.

Another thing that keeps me up at night, it’s related to the housing, is the idea of losing real community. We’re in a situation where 10 years ago we were 40 percent year-round residents and now we’re only 28 percent. We’re slowly moving towards becoming more of a resort and less of a community. The public process is very important, but it’s also important to stay true to those goals and values for creating that long-term community.

Ivan Sim:

From our perspective at Idaho Power, we’ve demonstrated that the public process is critical and how we provide projects and how we spend our services to the communities. Oftentimes we do and have made adjustments to how we might build infrastructure as related to the public input process and the communities we serve. It’s significant, we welcome it. It’s important because the more input you get, generally the greater the outcomes are going to be. Changes can come at a cost, so we need to understand that as well.

Our objective is and we’re committed to making sure that we provide our services at the best and lowest cost possible.

Patricia Nilsson:

We’re starting work on updating the county’s comprehensive plan, and I think for the first time in Canyon County history, we’re actually working with all of our local towns. We’ve decided with the growth forecast in Canyon County, we can’t just work at a county-wide level anymore. We have divided the county into 10 sub areas, two of which are ag-based. We’ll have workers in each of those develop a comp plan for that area.

Most of the others then are around the small towns in the county. They just don’t have a lot of capacity to take that on, and they’re so happy that the county is going to help them with that. I think only good things will come out of that effort. I might age 20 years over the next year, but we’re going to hit it hard and have initially at least three meetings in each of those planning areas and at least get those visions and some preliminary land use maps developed out of it.

Dana Zuckerman:

I know this isn’t a very popular opinion, but I’m wary of public outreach. This is only because I believe as a government entity, it’s our responsibility to inform and ask the populous what people want. Unfortunately, the people who show up to meetings to express themselves are the three angriest people in the city. At CCDC meetings, the only people who ever show up are staff, and one, two or three really angry people, and that doesn’t represent the people of Boise.

So, we’ve had open houses on all of the different projects that we’ve done, and people who come in with flyers against the projects, those are the people who show up. Everyone who is happy with what we’re doing stays home because there’s a football game on or their kids have soccer, so why should they bother coming out to say, “Yeah, I like what you’re doing.”

It’s the same thing with when you read TripAdvisor, why would you bother commenting if everything was fine? You only get on there if you want to rant about the one little thing that happened that you didn’t like. I think that happens a lot with public meetings.

I honestly think that CCDC, I know we have a very talented, very well-informed staff, and I trust that a lot of the information they’re giving us is the way to go and that people that come that just don’t want something down their block, don’t necessarily know better. They’re trying to protect their neighborhood and I get that. I don’t want certain things built down my block either, but sometimes it’s better to leave it to the experts. Hopefully then once things are built, the whole city will embrace that.

I heard somebody say something funny a few years ago. There’s that castle that was built on Warm Springs. People were aghast when it was going up, and a friend of mine who lives a few blocks from there said, “Just you wait, a few years from now if somebody tries to tear that down, the community will go crazy.” I think that’s true of a lot of the larger projects we’re trying to build. I’m a big supporter of this ballpark that we’re trying to build, not just the ballpark but the entire development around it. There’s a lot of opposition, but I believe once it’s built, and it will be built, that if anybody were to ever try to tear it down, people would go crazy because they got used to having this great amenity right in their backyard. Sometimes it’s important for leaders to lead.

Diane Kushlan:

I would just say, I think it’s too bad the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) phenomena gets a lot of press because there’s really a lot of great things happening with community engagement and planning. I worked on a project to look at how Vista Ave. could be healthier. We brought in experts, did a report, made recommendations, then just kind of sat there. Then, two homeowners association presidents and the president of a business association on Vista got together and said we need to do something about this, and they organized themselves and brought other people in and they’re working on an initiative to implement some of those things.

There are some great things happening in terms of outreach. I think our responsibility as planners is to promote the common good, and we can only do that with community engagement. We’ve got a crisis right now in terms of people being involved. You’ve got people who could care less, people who will just vote or come in by association, and then people who really want to know a lot and implement the right decisions. So, I think we have to be transparent in our processes, make it as easy as possible to be involved, certainly be out there and go out to the communities and do some outreach.

Finally, as a planner, I have an ethical obligation, as well as others in the practice, to represent those who aren’t represented and the people that don’t have a voice and make sure that their interests are respected as well.

A GreenBike station in downtown Boise. File photo.

The transit conversation

Patricia Nilsson:

With I-84, I have colleagues on the eastern end of the Valley who say, “Oh there’s all these bad things” and as someone who almost had their mini cooper swallowed up when the interstate fell a couple winters ago, it has been kind of a binding agent with our political leaders. It’s something they can agree on because of all the complaints from the citizens and the public. There’s still lots of other problems, but it’s been a good project to bring people together. They don’t always agree on a lot of other things because they see that having a good day means having a road that doesn’t have four-foot potholes in it that blows out tires. It was that bad. So, they’re working on that.

Like I said, the transit part of the transportation puzzle is going to take at least that effort to get people to kind of coalesced around that. Nampa may not fund this year, I think Star is debating to fund Valley regional transit, and we can’t operate that with the growth we’re having. We need something more stable in transit funding. We have four highway districts in Canyon County and Caldwell and Nampa have street departments, and they all do a great job. They always think they’re not doing enough, but we get around just fine. It’s the transit part that I think is our next big challenge.

Michelle Groenevelt:

Who has even been to Amsterdam and ridden a bike? They prioritize cyclists, then it’s pedestrians, then it’s transit and cars, so it’s very different. By the way, full disclosure my parents are from Holland, so I’m a little biased. It’s a really great way to move around the city. You can move around the city so much quicker on a bicycle, and it rains and it’s terrible weather, and everybody does it. I think transportation is going to change. I think the e-bikes are a really interesting phenomenon in cities.

In McCall at least, we’re pretty small, so it’s really easy to move around on a bike. People say no left turns in the summer, but if you get on a bicycle, you can move around a lot faster in the summer.

What we’re doing is really focusing on more of those cycle paths like you see in the Netherlands that are separated bike paths, because everyone feels comfortable on those. What we’re learning is build it and they will come. Even if you build just a little segment and it’s not connected, what we’re finding is people drive to those segments and they walk their dogs there and ride their bicycles. It really is about creating the infrastructure to make it really easy to move around whether it’s for a commuter or just for recreation.

Patricia Nilsson:

I remember a few years ago I had to go and speak to the Wilder Planning and Zoning Commission, and I had on the agenda list Tom Laws, who worked for COMPASS. He was coming out to Wilder to talk about the potential for a rail trail, a rail along Highway 19. I thought this will be an interesting conversation. In such a small town like Wilder, I wonder how they’re going to feel about that. They thought it was the best idea. They thought it would bring new development opportunities to have people be able to bike to Wilder and help the little businesses there.

Ivan Sim:

I’ll just broaden the discussion beyond just the city itself, but how we’re interconnected by our communities. What was once on the fringe or was once rural isn’t anymore.

As our cities continue to grow into each other, how do we connect those dots and provide an actual network for mobility? It’s not just about moving people, it’s information, it’s materials. I lived in Chicago for about 12 years and taking the L from the airport to downtown was the best and fastest way to get there.

How do we get more business travelers to downtown and the areas they need to travel to? The ability to get to Boise and from Boise to their destination is also critical, so I think the discussion has to be a bit broader on that.

Boise’s Front Street during rush hour. Photo by Teya Vitu.

Future innovations in urban planning

Michelle Groenevelt:

I think the role of planners is to really rethink the streetscape. I think we’ll probably see a lot more Uber and Lyft going on. If anyone wants to be an Uber or Lyft driver in McCall, we desperately need you. I think just the way that our streets and how they’re designed, that’s important.

Patricia Nilsson:

We have the entity that’s starting up at the intersection of US 95 and 2026 that will take ag waste and convert it to energy to help fund a manufacturing plant. A lot of great opportunities are going on kind of under the radar. That’s the kind of stuff that really advances the county. Again, it’s how we choose to spend our money. The more efficiently we can spend it on energy, like transportation, it just creates so many more opportunities for investment.

Dana Zuckerman:

I’m concerned that the conversation about autonomous vehicles is going to overshadow some of the more important conversations about transportation. Driverless vehicles need maybe a different kind of road, but they still need the same space on the road and still need a parking spot, and still require people to buy their own private vehicle.

I’m very hopeful that Uber and Lyft fill a role that our public transportation system hasn’t yet been able to fill. Maybe it will be complementary to the public transportation system that we’re hoping to build. I think that especially if you look at the train corridors that we have, there’s a train track that goes all the way from Boise through Meridian out, if I’m not mistaken, to Nampa and Caldwell. If we just built a great bike lane along that, that becomes a transportation corridor and it doesn’t just serve Boise, but it serves all of the Treasure Valley. We need something like that.

It would be great to get out of your airplane, get one of those rental bikes and drive down a safe path, which does not exist, into downtown, and just dock your bike. I think people would love that coming in after having sat on a plane for a few hours and get some fresh Idaho air. That to me is a lot more important than what the technology is going to be with cars.