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Proposed open space rules for subdivision stir dissent in Kuna

Advocates say that open space promotes an active lifestyle and beautifies the city. Critics worry that it will be too burdensome for developers.
Credit: Tyson White/KTVB
City of Kuna

Kuna City Council will continue to hear public testimony concerning an ordinance that would require developers to include more open space in future projects.

Advocates argue that open space, which can include anything from parks and walking paths to swimming pools and tennis courts, promotes an active lifestyle, preserves the environment and beautifies the city. Critics worry that the new requirements will be too burdensome for developers, costing not only them but passing on expenses to the homeowners who buy their lots.

The proposed requirements call for 3% open space in subdivisions with fewer than 100 homes. But the code as proposed would mean projects with over 1,950 dwellings would need at least 24% to meet the new requirements, spurring opposition from developers.

Requiring a subdivision to have a quarter of open space would also burden homeowners associations and property owners who are tasked with maintaining the space, Kuna City Councilman Richard Cardoza told the Kuna Melba News in an email

“I think the city is reconsidering and will bring back an open space requirement that will benefit the city and the developers, and the citizens of Kuna,” he said.

Council will hold another public hearing on the matter on Jan. 7.

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Why update requirements?

In the city’s comprehensive plan, Kuna set out to have one acre of open space for every 80 residents. This goal was set after years of expressed interest in more open space being built.

“City Council, Planning and Zoning Commission, schools and youth groups have all expressed a need for more open space in the community,” said Bobby Withrow, director of Parks and Recreation.

However, limited requirements have been established to meet this goal. City code currently states that for every 50 dwellings, 5% of land must be open space. City officials who deal with zoning generally realize this law doesn’t make sense, according to Withrow. The ordinance, when read literally, would force developers to add another 5% to the portion of open space they have for every 50 dwellings. That means that a development with 100 homes would need 10% open space, and a development with 1,000 homes would need to be 100% open space.

As a result, the city council has defaulted to its own judgment, determining whether developers plan to include enough open space on a case-by-case basis when developers apply to build. New requirements would establish an open-space standard that developers must meet to have their future projects approved.

Planned urban developments, which are mixed-use communities, are required to provide 10% open space in Kuna, but these developments are a small minority of those being proposed. For most new developments, no formalized open space requirements are being enforced.

A primary reason for creating more open space is to improve the livelihoods of Kuna children. With the highest number of Kuna residents in their late 20s and early 30s in the city’s history, young families seek to benefit from more parks and paths in the community. Withrow emphasized the interest that local schools have in creating more safe spaces for kids to play. The office of Kuna School District Superintendent Wendy Johnson was unavailable for comment before publication.

Of the 22 developments approved by the council since 2017, 17 already meet the proposed requirements.

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Unequal treatment?

The updated requirements would not apply to projects that have already been approved and would affect larger subdivisions far more than smaller subdivisions.

“There becomes an outrageous amount of open space required for larger projects,” said developer Tim Eck, the owner of approximately 1,000 acres in Kuna, in a public testimony. “This ordinance does treat smaller projects different than larger projects and larger landowners different than smaller landowners. The variation is huge.”

Senior Planner Troy Behunin said that unequal treatment continues to be a concern for the Planning and Zoning Department.

“One thing that we are looking into is making it more fair and more balanced,” he said.

The hope of requiring different percentages of open space for different sized developments is that smaller developers will be able to fill in gaps in the city’s current development and connect neighborhoods together. Plus, larger projects are expected to bring in more young families who will benefit from new parks and playing fields.

“If it’s a small 10- or 20-acre parcel, they just don’t have as much land to build open space,” Behunin said. “We want to encourage infill development. (Smaller developers) don’t have quite the impact that someone with 800 homes has. In a big development like that, there is probably a higher likelihood that there are more kids. They’re going to need a safe space to play and to recreate.”

Piecemeal projects

Because open space requirements would be easier and cheaper for small developments to meet, some worry that large landowners will simply split their land up into smaller projects and build less open space in the process. Council member Briana Buban-Vonder Haar, while unable to attend the Nov. 19 meeting, submitted written testimony raising this concern.

“We appear to be incentivizing smaller developments which are likely to have smaller open space areas which would remain the property of HOAs (homeowners associations) and not be available for community use,” she wrote.

Others feel that it would be disadvantageous for large landowners to develop smaller portions of land at a time, even though they could.

“If they want to break up one big project into five projects, something that could take three to four years would take eight to nine years,” Behunin said. “It takes five to six months to get through the public hearing process.”

Behunin also cited development-related fees and the risk that more public hearings would lead to more frequent public opposition to new projects. Splitting up one project into a few increases the chance that one of them doesn’t get approved, he said.

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Economic impact

Developers’ most pressing concern is the economic toll that building and maintaining open space could take. Some landowners fear housing prices would have to increase to account for new requirements, decreasing affordability for homebuyers.

“Requiring such large areas of open space will dramatically increase the price of building in the city,” Eck, the developer, said. “This is due to the higher cost of land resulting from the total land cost being applied only to the land receiving dwellings.”

In short, developers will only be able to profit from the decreased portion of their land that they can build homes on and sell. The cost of building open space would potentially be built into the costs of homes in new subdivisions.

The burden placed on HOAs has also been contentious. Critics of the new requirements say that the costs of maintaining open space will be too big a burden for homeowners to bear.

“If the HOA dues are too high, it’s been my experience that when a developer leaves, one of the first actions of business is that the residents … will start slashing the maintenance of the common areas so they can afford the HOA,” said Dave Yorgeson, testifying on behalf of the Building Contractors Association of Southwestern Idaho.

The city has offered a potential solution. A new “credit” program allows the city to take over ownership and maintenance of open spaces if developers meet certain requirements. Maintenance is paid for by a park impact fee that has already been authorized by the council, Behunin said.

This credit program also seeks to express the concern raised by Councilwoman Buban-Vonder Haar that some open spaces have been closed off to the public by HOAs. By taking public control, these areas would be made available for public use in the same way that open spaces like soccer fields at local schools are accessible to the community.

Critics are also concerned about decreased tax revenue for the city. Eck pointed out that open spaces aren’t assessed by Ada County, so the more open space that’s provided, the less taxable land there is for the city.

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Requirements elsewhere

While Kuna developers could be required to build as much as 24% open space, comparable cities like Meridian have placed lower caps on open space requirements. In Meridian, only about 10% open space is required in any given subdivision.

While most subdivisions in Kuna don’t come close to the nearly 2,000-home size — only one new subdivision has exceeded 160 acres since 2017 — that would require such a high portion of open space, critics feel that big developers will be pressed harder than in other cities. Don Newell, who worked on the Ashton Estates project in Kuna, has taken part in developing not just in Idaho but in Nevada and California. He called the proposed obligations “the most aggressive, and quite frankly egregious, I can remember.”

The requirements for smaller developments would be comparatively low.

“Three percent — that’s a small number,” said Yorgeson, who also helped draft open space ordinances for Meridian and Eagle. “Twenty-four percent — that’s a pretty big number.”

Next steps

City Council will hear more public testimony at its Jan. 7 meeting, which starts at 6 p.m. at Kuna City Hall. Mayor Joe Stear requested that concerned stakeholders submit written testimony in addition to attending the meeting to answer questions about their concerns. The ordinance will be one of the first issues reelected council members Greg McPherson and Buban-Vonder Haar, as well as reelected Mayor Stear, take on in their next terms. A vote may or may not be held at that meeting, and amendments to the new open space requirements are likely to be discussed.

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