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Boise zoning code rewrite: Attracting 'more community-minded developers' is one of city's hopes

Whether the new code taking effect in December leads to more affordable homes and more sustainable development in Boise remains to be seen.

BOISE, Idaho — Boise has a new zoning code. That code determines how and where new buildings and other developments may be built in the city.

The idea of finally updating this code after decades was to create more affordable housing in the city, make it easier to get around, reduce environmental impacts, and other things.

Will it work? I don't know.

I can tell you that it passed the Planning and Zoning Committee and then the City Council unanimously, with some changes, a couple weeks ago, so those leaders believe it will work. The city's Planning & Development Director also believes in it. I talked with Tim Keane about what the code means for the future of the community.

It's been proven time and again in this area, you cannot stop growth. But you can try to get the right type of growth, which is the point of the new standards in this modernized zoning code for Boise.

"If you set higher standards, that does not mean that you won't get development,” Keane said. “It just means that you'll get higher quality, longer-term, kind of value-oriented development."

According to Keane, those higher-quality developments will increase density in Boise. That means more people in a smaller footprint. But, he says, that doesn't mean they'll be bulldozing all the old neighborhoods and throwing up skyscrapers.

"It makes sure that we've got density in the right places, where we want taller buildings on some of our main streets, and in our neighborhoods, more home-scaled buildings,” Keane said. “But there's a diversity. So, it puts density in the right places. But it also creates these incentives to ensure that we've got affordable housing in the development that's happening."

As we talked about last week, that's one of the main goals of this new zoning code, to create more affordable housing. That’s what Boiseans need more of. However, one of the main criticisms of this code is that when the city put it together, they listened to developers and not the people of Boise.

"That is the most unfair criticism, I think, because not a single developer asked us to make these changes," Keane said.

He also pointed out a change made to the code after a resident's recommendation just the day before.

He does admit though, that there are developers out there who do not have the city's best interests in mind.

"I have dealt with lots of developers in my life, and you have community-minded ones, and you have less community-minded ones. What this will mean, because of the standards that are in this ordinance, you'll get more and more community-minded developers to build in Boise,” Keane said. “Those that are just seeking to make money in the short term will move other places, because that's not what the city is about."

Keane points to the incentives in the code as a way to attract those community-minded developers. But there was criticism there, too. Council reduced the deed restrictions on affordable housing from 50 to just 20 years. Keane said he was OK with that, because 20 years is the federal standard.

But that's not all the criticism. The final draft of the code also changed an incentive requiring projects that are "affordable and sustainable" to "affordable or sustainable."

The worry is that developers will choose to build sustainable projects they can make more money on, and just avoid building affordable housing altogether. Keane said that change happened because they didn't want builders of affordable housing to also have to shoulder the responsibility of building all the sustainable projects. They also wanted to open things up a bit, so more people could build all types of projects.

"Right now, the way it works in the city, it can take so long, and it's so expensive to build,” according to Keane. “That means that most people are shut out of it. It's just developers that have lawyers and architects and engineers that can take the time and invest the resources to make it happen. The hope with this is that we can bring more people into development, and more people in the city can benefit from growth."

That’s another lofty goal, but even Keane admits the zoning code can't fix every problem the city is facing.

"The ordinance isn't everything, but it is an important representation of what the community cares about,” he said. “And all those things are embedded throughout this ordinance."

The new zoning code goes into effect Dec. 1. Remember, they'll keep coming back every year to tweak it to make sure it's working how it's supposed to. So, if you have problems with it, let them know.

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