There’s a case of déjà vu in Ada County.
Last week, the Ada County Commission invited the Ada County Highway District commissioners to discuss how they could coordinate their planning for the county’s development and roads.
For the last two decades, urban planners have pushed over and over for greater regional coordination. They warn now, as they warned then, that if the Treasure Valley continues to grow without taking action, traffic will worsen, inefficient development will overtake farmland, and open spaces will come under threat.
“It’s the same conversation,” said ACHD General Counsel Steve Price at the meeting. “The one thing that is consistent over the last 15 years is the lack of fortitude to get serious about growth management.”
Price’s frustration is felt by other planners who have spent hours and millions of dollars creating plans for growth only to see them gather dust, ignored by the cities they’re meant to benefit.
“That lack of planning is where we are, where we’ve always been,” said longtime Downtown Boise developer Clay Carley in a phone interview. “Every year that we let it slip, it just gets magnified. It becomes more expensive to reverse that lack of planning.”
WHERE THE PLANNING EFFORTS BEGAN
The campaign for cooperative planning started in 1998, when former Boise Mayor Brent Coles and other cities’ officials started to look at how they might coordinate their decisions about new development and where it should go with transportation decisions made by the Ada County Highway District.
The plan they drafted, Treasure Valley Futures, considered policies that could be implemented to limit sprawl and better manage the way the area grew. The 2002 report also found that cities often failed to follow their own comprehensive plans — which are required by Idaho law and meant to outline their future growth. That, in turn, made it hard for ACHD to decide where to invest in transportation.
From that plan sprang the Blueprint for Good Growth in 2005. The Blueprint, which ACHD, Ada County and every city in the county took part in, sought not only to coordinate planning, but to add teeth to efforts to control costly sprawl.
Its most important policy recommendation was something called an adequate public facilities ordinance for each city to enact. This ordinance would have required that adequate public infrastructure — like schools, roads and sewage — be in place before new development could be approved, not after, as it frequently was then.
The ordinance would have tied cities’ hands when it came to approving development. Elected officials from most of the county’s smaller cities couldn’t agree to that. And that’s where Blueprint fell apart.
“Everybody is for it in theory,” Boise Mayor David Bieter said in a phone interview. “It’s a lot tougher in practice.”
Who’s to blame? That depends on who you talk to.
“Everybody except for Boise wasn’t willing to do the adequate public facilities ordinance,” said Matt Stoll, executive director of COMPASS, a regional planning agency established under a federal law to help make efficient use of federal highway spending. “And ACHD said they weren’t willing to do it if everyone wasn’t on board.”
In the end, no city implemented the ordinance. Developments are still being approved in many cases before their infrastructure is in place, leading to rising costs for all taxpayers after the developments are built.
Meridian Mayor Tammy de Weerd said cities were never presented with a sufficiently clear version of the ordinance: “There was not a good model brought to the table.”
Don Kostelec, a transportation consultant and former ACHD employee during the planning process, agrees that it wasn’t clear what the ordinance’s details would be. But there was a bigger concern, he said.
“There was an overwhelming reluctance, no matter who you talked to, to say, ‘You can’t tell development no,’” he said. Cities worried that if they signed onto the ordinance but one city opted out, all growth would flock there.
Former ACHD President John Franden put it more simply.
“It all comes down to power,” he said in a phone interview. “And it comes down to not being willing to work together.”
WARNING OF CONSEQUENCES OF UNILATERAL ACTION
In 2005, a group of researchers from the Urban Land Institute, a nationwide think tank whose members include planners, developers, architects and others, evaluated progress as the Blueprint for Good Growth was being developed.
“Ada County and its cities need to come together and stop acting unilaterally … This is imperative because the consequences of unilateral action are unplanned and disconnected growth, wasted resources and infrastructure, increased traffic, and a decline in the region’s quality of life,” the researchers wrote.
The Valley was warned about those consequences again two years later, when the ULI did another study to analyze how ACHD could better plan for growth alongside the city and counties.
The 2007 study pointed out several challenges the Treasure Valley faced:
- The Ada County Highway District didn’t have enough money to maintain or improve roads.
- Cities and counties competed with each other to attract tax-generating development, such as business parks and industrial development. Sometimes they changed their comprehensive plans to enable opportunities for economic growth that didn’t fit the plans. Those changes caught ACHD off guard.
- ACHD often failed to respond to residents and gained a reputation of serving developers rather than its constituents.
- The cities and county weren’t coordinating their development plans with ACHD’s road-building plan.
The researchers predicted that a failure to work to manage growth together regionally would exacerbate the problems that came with growth. Written over a decade ago, their predictions feel oddly prescient:
- “Sprawling development will continue outward … Ultimately growth will spill into adjacent counties and towns that likely will be unprepared for development”
- “The spread of development will escalate traffic congestion throughout the county as residents and commuters from other areas continue to depend almost exclusively on automobile travel”
- “Improvements in … transit service are shortchanged and delayed”
- “The size of the developed area expands and trips become longer”
- “The jobs/housing balance worsens — housing and associated retail development spread west and south while jobs remain focused in the eastern end of the county, generating longer commuting trips”
- “The lack of a common vision and commitments to policy-based land use plans is creating a development pattern that seems to be compromising the valley’s quality of life”
- “Currently, growth-management practices are eroding the individual character of communities”
- “Conflicts between jurisdictions will heighten as they pursue annexations and long-term control of expanded development areas, which also will require continued and costly extensions of infrastructure systems”
- “Competition will increase among jurisdictions to seize economic opportunities, fund infrastructure, and provide adequate facilities — with jurisdictions essentially focusing on short-term gains at the expense of long-term value”
- “The county will experience major losses of open space, farms and ranches, including the remarkable visual environment formed by the foothills”
- “Eventually, the county’s governments and agencies will experience greater public rebellion and political turmoil as consequence of decline in infrastructure capacities — especially in the transportation system.”
Today, Boise voters worried about loss of control have put measures on the November ballot to give themselves control over a proposed new main library and a sports stadium.
City Council President Lauren McLean, who is challenging Mayor David Bieter’s bid for a fifth term, broke with Bieter and the rest of the council last month to side with Northwest Boise opponents of a developer’s plan to build 83 townhouses, 74 single-family homes and up to 130 apartments on land bisected by Hill Road Parkway.
The Treasure Valley still faces the same problems as in 2007 — but with more people, more traffic, and ever-rising fees and taxes as local governments struggle with the price of growth, including the cost of new and wider roads.
“The land use decisions made by the cities and the Ada County Commission, along with their changes to their comprehensive plans, often add more vehicles to the roads than anticipated, creating congestion and forcing ACHD to modify infrastructure plans,” said Rebecca Arnold, president of the ACHD commission.
In part, city officials never solved those problems because economic factors shifted so drastically when the Great Recession hit in late 2007.
“The downturn made it almost an irrelevant conversation, because there was nothing going on,” Bieter said.
Stoll said officials worried that their projections for growth had been fueled by the real estate bubble. “As soon as the recession hit, everyone stopped talking about it,” he said. “The pressure to coordinate land use and transportation wasn’t there.”
Each city independently drafted its own comprehensive plan and pushed forward with its own vision for development.
Cities became desperate for any development they could attract. Meridian continued to grow, sometimes at lower densities than it had anticipated in its own comprehensive plan.
Now in a second boom time, many cities and counties are feeling strained as the costs associated with growth pile on. In the last year, both Meridian and Nampa increased their impact fees, which are levied on new development to pay for the cost of roads, parks and police.
Kuna recently implemented some impact fees for the first time. As recently as 2017, Kuna expanded its area of impact — the limits of where it predicts to grow and provide services to. It now expects to grow to four times the size it did in the 1990s.
This year, Ada County voted to collect foregone tax money to pay for improvements for the sheriff and coroner’s office. And last year, ACHD asked voters to raise vehicle registration fees by 75 percent — to $70 from $40 for a new vehicle — to help pay for road improvements. Voters said no.
IS THERE HOPE FOR A NEW REGIONAL PLAN?
City leaders say not all of Blueprint’s efforts have gone to waste.
“There have been advancements,” De Weerd said. “We are bringing jobs and services closer to where people live.”
She noted that Meridian has coordinated its growth with neighboring cities as it updates its comprehensive plan. Still, it has eaten away at much of its farmland as the city sprawls into the north and south.
In Boise, the city never adopted an adequate public facilities ordinance, but it avoided the hopscotch pattern of annexations that bedevil Meridian. Its City Council has lately focused on infill development, even as it annexes land in the northwest and southeast.
COMPASS, the regional planning agency, created a regional transportation plan, Communities in Motion, alongside the Blueprint for Good Growth plan. It also provides reports to cities about how they are implementing their long-term plans. All six cities in Ada County belong to COMPASS.
But COMPASS lacks the authority from the Legislature to enforce its plans. Cities voluntarily comply with the plan — or choose to act independently.
Now Ada County’s two new commissioners, Diana Lachiondo and Kendra Kenyon, both Democrats elected last fall, are pushing to coordinate growth. But it’s unclear what action, if any, will come from these meetings.
“Sometimes it takes timing and the right people on the table,” Kenyon said at the meeting.
The timing is now, as far as Clay Carley is concerned. “Our catastrophe is right in front of us. And we don’t recognize that.”