Boise, Meridian try boosting advance notices of development (Idaho Statesman)

Leaders in Boise, Meridian taking steps to help residents learn about proposed developments By Maria L. La Ganga mlaganga@idahostatesman.com 

Have you seen the pale yellow signs dotting Boise's changing neighborhoods, the ones announcing public hearings for projects that could put, say, a new subdivision, truck terminal, bike park or high rise in the empty lot next door?

Bit by bit, agricultural land is being rezoned and developed into subdivisions. Unlike Boise, Kuna notifies the public of upcoming developments and public hearings with big signs that can be read from a car. BIt by bit, agricultural land is being rezoned and developed into subdivisions. Unlike Boise, Kuna notifies the public of upcoming developments and public hearings with big signs that can be read from a car.

Kuna and Garden City advertise pending projects with signs that can be easily seen from a moving car. Similar announcements in Boise are 11 inches by 17 inches of poster board, the size of two pieces of printer paper laid side by side.

That, however, could change, because of an effort pushed by local activists.

Growth and its consequences have left some Treasure Valley residents saying they feel sidelined amid rapid change, prompting leaders in Boise and Meridian to promise better notice for their constituents about projects in their neighborhoods.

Starting in September, proposed big developments in Boise will be announced by two-sided plywood signs that stretch 4 feet by 4 feet and provide easy-to-read details about upcoming public hearings.

In addition, those who live or work within a 500-foot radius of such projects will receive postcards with similar information starting in August. That's a jump from the current 300-foot radius.

Local activists point to ... small, yellow notices in a monochromatic landscape -- as a symptoms of the lack of transparency in Boise's development process. This is how the city notifies the general public about upcoming hearings on future projects. All that could change. The sign here is a notice for a public hearing to rezone former Harris Ranch land into one-acre parcels with a single-family home on each. Provided by Vanishing Boise In Meridian, city officials have launched a raft of measures to improve transparency and convenience for residents. One initiative allows citizens to sign up online to speak at public hearings once an agenda has been posted. Officials say Meridian is the first city in Idaho to offer this.

Meridian's steps and Boise's two pilot projects may sound like minor, even boring, bureaucratic details. But to those who pushed for change, the new notifications in Boise are an important step toward opening up the city's development process to greater public involvement and scrutiny at a time of rapid growth and declining public trust.

Those hard-to-see yellow signs are "symptomatic of the fact that we're not doing a good enough job on the front end getting neighborhoods and citizens engaged and informed," said David Klinger, one of the local activists who wrote to Boise Mayor David Bieter in April asking for a better public information process. Klinger has been involved in the redevelopment of the historic Booth Home in the North End, pushing for greater transparency in the property's sale and future shape.

"You can't know what you can't see," he said.

Residents have complained of insufficient signs and other public notification regarding projects including a 28-unit subdivision on Victory Road in southwest Boise, a truck terminal planned next to the Blue Valley mobile home park on the southeast edge of Boise, and a mountain bike park proposed for the Military Reserve.

The April 3 letter was signed by Klinger, Vanishing Boise founder Lori Dicaire and John Bertram, former president of Preservation Idaho.

"We believe the ordinary citizens of Boise are becoming increasingly powerless in the planning, management and oversight of growth in their city," they wrote. "Recent acceleration in the pace of development in Boise has exposed fundamental flaws in how the public is informed and engaged in the direction of this city's expansion."

Local activists pushing for Boise to be more transparent in the development process point to the difference in signs posted by this city and neighboring venues such as Garden City. Provided by David Klinger Klinger made the same plea at the City Council's first far-flung town hall meeting, an April 11 session in drafty Fire Station No. 4 designed for citizens to voice their concerns. Nearly all comments were about rampant growth.

Bieter disagreed with some of the speakers' calls for a halt to a proposed development, about 300 units of housing off of Hill Road Parkway. But he has embraced their call for better public information.

"I was glad Mr. Klinger came up at the end," Bieter said at the time. "I will own this. We can do a better job of getting the word out about what's going on in the development area. There are minimums that state code requires, but ... we shouldn't do minimums. We should get the word out better, and I think we're already on course to do that."

Not long after, the city convened a development advisory committee designed to improve transparency in city planning.

Klinger and DiCaire have attended, along with other neighborhood activists. Developer Clay Carley has taken part, as have various city officials. City Council President Pro Tem Elaine Clegg has chaired the effort.

On Friday, Dicaire posted an update about the committee's efforts on Vanishing Boise's Facebook page. She is guardedly optimistic.

"It's hard to get a system to change," Dicaire said. "In this time of explosive growth, we want the citizens' voices to be heard. We need more citizen engagement, not less."

A perceived lack of transparency was the most common reason people spoke at a hearing July 9 against the Boise Parks and Recreation Department's plan for a bike park in Boise's Military Reserve. Provided by Boise Parks and Recreation Department Carley said he is less persuaded that the current system is broken, but "I always applaud any organization that seeks to improve its processes, particularly ones that have been in place for a long time and seem to have worked well for a long time."

He said efforts to make bigger signs and have wider notification are a positive step, but notification isn't the heart of Boise's problem.

"The meat of the matter is the neighborhood not trusting the process, the system or the developers," Carley said. It's "the neighborhoods feeling like each of those entities live in their own world without the neighborhoods being part of it."

"That perception is real in some instances," he said. "In my thinking, that's not an accurate perception."

The committee has a few more meetings left. They'll eventually make a recommendation to the City Council. Clegg said that, at this point, no ordinance changes are in the offing. If the committee ends up recommending that ordinance changes are necessary, the council will have to vote on them.

"We can do better than minimums, and we recognize that," Clegg said. "Hopefully we've come to a good agreement on what's better than that, but not so much that you inundate people with stuff."