When Boise was hit by growth in the 1970s, no one considered the Boise Foothills worth saving. The city pointed builders and bulldozers toward their peaks, where they razed hilltops and sagebrush and planted houses.
Since that time, those dusty slopes have taken on a more golden hue. When developers in the 1990s sought to erect 300 houses in Hull’s Gulch, conservationists helped raise money to buy part of the land and pushed the owner to donate the rest. Today, hundreds of miles of trails cross the Foothills, some maintained by the city and the others carved out by dog paws and dirt bikes.
But that treasured open space has come under threat as Boise goes through its second major growth spurt in two decades. In those blue-gold Foothills, developers are seeing green. The gentle slopes have become hardened with rooftops of million-dollar houses. Fleeing their own crowded hillsides, Californians have set up new perches there.
“Collectively, we need to say, ‘No more,’” said Mayor David Bieter at his State of the City address last year. “The Foothills, ladies and gentlemen, are just too precious. When we look at our children, and we imagine their children and the generations to come, don’t you want to be able say that we protected that resource, that we protected the beautiful environment that we live in?”
In more recent campaign speeches, Bieter has doubled down on his commitment to slow development in the Foothills. “The Foothills aren’t negotiable,” he said at a mayoral forum in August.
But that’s not how developers see it. Despite the mayor’s remarks, builders are still rushing to build more houses in the Foothills. Bieter’s announcement, though it drew praise, did not actually result in a policy change.
Bieter has tried to keep Boise from following Salt Lake City and Denver’s predictable pattern of sprawl by encouraging infill development and density in the flatlands. But the persistence of some developers shows they may be testing the Boise’s authority to limit growth.
“The major landowners still have a desire and intent to develop their property,” said Hal Simmons, Boise’s former planning director. “But ultimately, there will be capacity constraints. The mayor says that we’ve reached that point.”
KEEPING SPRAWL OUT OF THE FOOTHILLS
In a state where private property rights are held up as God-given, Bieter’s push to limit development has upset many Foothills landowners. Some say the ordinance unfairly constrains those who waited until recently to develop their land.
“If you didn’t apply early, then all of a sudden you’re kind of boxed out,” said David Little, son of Gov. Brad Little. His family owns thousands of acres in the Foothills, including hundreds within Boise’s area of impact, where they used to run sheep between Notus and Idaho City.
In 2001, the Littles sold their sheep operation to Frank Shirt, a Wilder rancher, and gave him permission to graze on the land, which they kept.
“We don’t know how much longer Frank will be running sheep,” David Little told the Statesman in an interview. “It becomes harder and harder… I understand growth and the pushback on development, but if it can happen, then it should be allowed reasonably.”
The Little family isn’t making moves to develop the land — at least, not until Brad Little is out of office, his son said. Even if they wanted to, the Littles might face a fight with City Council.
While Boise cannot just deny development without cause, the city does have a tool to keep houses from sprawling across the hillsides. Adopted in 2000, the Foothills ordinance allows Boise to deny applications for development that would put too great a burden on the city’s roadways, Fire Department or water resources. It also establishes restrictions, such as requiring a certain amount of open space as part of new subdivisions.
The City Council has leaned on the Foothills ordinance to deny applications for annexations and rezones from rural landowners like Charlie Gibson, a rancher who owns 173 acres near the Little family’s off Bogus Basin Road. The council denied his application to build 20 houses there, arguing that the city’s Fire Department wouldn’t be able to serve the project.
The city also worried the development could add to bottleneck traffic along Bogus Basin Road.
“A lot of the major roadways that serve the Foothills are right at capacity,” said city planner Cody Riddle in an interview. “That’s one of our biggest challenges. In the downtown area specifically, you can’t widen these roads.”
While Boise counts the roads as overburdened, the Ada County Highway District says otherwise.
“We haven’t had any capacity issues,” said Christy Little, ACHD’s development services manager. Traffic jams might be a problem during rush hour but are rare during the day.
Ryan Head, ACHD’s planning and program supervisor, thinks it’s a matter of relativity. “Those who have historically had less traffic are having more, and it’s less comfortable,” he said.
Likewise, Boise’s Fire Department has its own concerns with growth in the Foothills.
“The Foothills are one of our highest fire risks,” said Perry Oldenburg, deputy chief of operations.
He cites the Table Rock fire of July 2016 that burned for six hours, blackening the mesa and consuming a house. Shifting winds changed the fire’s direction. Firefighters had to turn their trucks around and find another access point to reach the fire from the other side, hoping they’d get to the dry sagebrush before the fire did.
As builders approach the city with more projects located further from main roads, the Fire Department worries about how they’ll get there in the case of an emergency. The Planning and Zoning Commission on Sept. 16 voted against a 30-house subdivision proposed by Colin Connell near the Quail Hollow Golf Course after the Fire Department said their engines needed more access to the houses.
The Boise City Council will make the final decision about Connell’s development, which is on land that had been annexed into the city and zoned as residential before the Foothills ordinance.
While the city has turned down requests to build on land not yet annexed, developers are eager to see how they’ll treat land that is already zoned for housing.
Last year, Bieter estimated that nearly 400 lots were entitled for development in the Boise Foothills because they had been rezoned prior to the Foothills ordinance, including projects like Connell’s. Most of those lots fall between Bogus Basin and Cartwright roads, and just west of the Military Reserve.
But there are also thousands of acres in the Foothills land that have not been annexed yet into the city, including land placed into real estate holding companies by Gov. Brad Little’s family and the Simplot family. By simply getting in on development too late, those landowners may never be able to develop as part of Boise city.
BUILDING IN THE NORTHERN FOOTHILLS
The Foothills ordinance might work to hold back Boise’s growth. But the city can’t control Ada County, which has final approval over unincorporated land in the northern Foothills outside the city’s area of impact.
Just 15 years ago, Ada County was actively recruiting out-of-state developers to build planned communities in unincorporated land. It approved plans for hundreds of houses in the Foothills, many of which are not even half-built.
Two newly elected county commissioners are determined to change course. Democrats Diana Lachiondo and Kendra Kenyon have said they will deny applications for large developments on unincorporated county land and push it toward city. No new Hidden Springs, Avimor or Dry Creek Ranch-style subdivisions.
“At the end of the day, the county is supposed to be a county,” Lachiondo said in a phone interview. “Counties are not cities. We run the court system, we do mosquito abatement, we do paramedics. We don’t do library. We don’t do fire. Those are functions that we are not as set up to provide when there’s more significant development.”
PRESERVING THE FOOTHILLS
Dave McKinnon, 46, still spends as much time in the Boise Foothills today as he did when he was a teenager, although now he stays mostly on official trails. Like many, McKinnon has crossed onto trails cut through private property worn out by hikers and mountain bikers that strayed from Boise’s maintained trails and paths
As a teenager, he trespassed across private land near Bogus Basin Road to reach Stack Rock. Two decades later, he became a project manager for the land’s owner, the Terteling Co., and helped facilitate the deal that sold the land to Boise.
“The Terteling Co. thought it was the right thing to do,” McKinnon said.
Terteling Co., which owns over a thousand of acres in the Foothills, is one of many landowners that has opened land to the public. Nearly half of the 85,000 acres within Boise’s area of impact in the Foothills is privately owned, yet public trails crisscross nearly all of it.
“The community has a long history of wanting to preserve open space,” said Sara Arkle, the city’s manager of the Foothills and open space. Arkle has helped find ways to preserve the trails and open space even as houses rise.
Often, Arkle works with landowners who want to donate public right of way for trails. Some companies donate whole parcels, too. In February, Healthwise, a nonprofit that provides medical information to insurance and other medical businesses and their patients, sold 8 acres appraised at about $485,000 to the city for $435,000 at the Hillside to Hollow Reserve off Hill and Bogus Basin Road, bringing the reserve to 324 acres.
Part of the financing for those parcels came from the $10 million open space levy that Boise voted for in 2015.
“We’ve just dipped our toe into starting to spending some of that money,” Arkle said. She estimates the city has around $9.4 million left. A $10 million levy passed in 2001 was used to buy other land and acquire easements.
The city can also swap land with private landowners. David Little said the city talked to his family in 2001 about a possible trade.
The Land Trust of the Treasure Valley also works with landowners to conserve land as open space. Using funds donated from Boise residents and local businesses, the organization last spring bought 560 acres in the northwest Foothills that it plans to transfer to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to become public land, said Hollie Conde, the land trust’s communications director.
At no cost, Boise and the land trust can maintain trail access on beloved hiking spots by persuading landowners to donate easements through their property. In 2014, Grossman Company Properties, which owns the 4,050-acre Daniel’s Creek land in the Stack Rock area west of Bogus Basin Road, granted the city access to 26 miles of trails, including Peggy’s Trail and Sweet Connie.
“The trails really have been something that we’re pretty proud of,” said Tom Bobo, an Eagle-based project manager for the company, which developed Hidden Springs and Eagle River, a business development at Eagle Road and Idaho 44.
That doesn’t mean those developers will always be content to preserve the land. Bobo said Grossman has no plans to develop its Foothills acreage now but has advertised it on the company’s website as having “great potential to become one of Boise’s premier residential addresses.” The land is outside Boise’s area of impact.
The Simplots, another major Foothills landowner, have previously considered developing their land. The Simplot company did not return a request for comment. Nor did John Simplot Otter, son of Gay Simplot and Butch Otter, a director of the real estate holding company that owns the family land, returned multiple requests for comment.
That leaves conservationists like Conde wondering what will become of their land. If it’s not protected by a conservation easement, or bought by the city, there’s always a threat that those currently barren hillsides could become houses. And as land gets swallowed up by growth, those last open spaces will become more even more valuable — for both conservationists and developers.
“Managing this growth is going to take preserving what open space we have left,” Conde said. “It’s going to take a massive coordinated effort on behalf of all municipalities and the county.”
Suzanne Stone, president of the Collister Neighborhood Association, doesn’t want Boise to become just another big city. “You look at other big cities, and you have to drive somewhere to get anywhere you can go hiking or cycling. That disappears once those Foothills become just another mass subdivision,” she said. “When is enough enough? We’ve already lost more than we should.”