When houses started rising from the Boise Foothills at Hidden Springs in 1999, many Idahoans had not heard of planned communities. Now, a decade later, with half a dozen planned communities in the works, each promising a mix of houses, shopping and employment, Hidden Springs provides a convenient laboratory for examining the success or failure of large, master planned and remote development in Idaho.
While Hidden Springs has earned local and national kudos for many of its aesthetic and community features, key players in the early development of Hidden Springs harbor disappointments that the "work" part of the development's "live, work, play" mantra has not panned out the way it was promised.
"It's a game to say we can have employment there," said Bill Clark, a Boise developer who ushered Hidden Springs through its initial planning before Frank Martin was recruited to Boise by the owners.
It's the same game that Avimor has played, promising employment along State Highway 55 north of Boise and Eagle. And it's part of the pitch for Dry Creek Ranch, closer to Eagle than Avimor and up for county approval this week.
"There's some things about the county's planned community ordinance that are an illusion, or a delusion, and that is that they are self-sustaining," Clark said in an interview at his offices in the Veltex Building.
Roger Simmons, one of three Ada County commissioners who approved Hidden Springs, agrees that it has not lived up to its promises of self-sufficiency.
"They didn't do a lot of things that they were supposed to do. It's not really a mixed use like it was planned to be," Simmons said. "The reason we approved Hidden Springs is because what they presented to us was a community. The definition of a community isn't just a bunch of houses."
Hidden Springs is more than just a bunch of houses. But how much more depends on who you ask. In addition to the 750 homes there now—most of them spacious, well-designed, solid houses—the development boasts a rustic-feeling cafe, a charter elementary school, a fire station and amenities like two pools, clubhouses, a barn and hiking trails.
And it has a central mail drop next to the Mercantile—the cafe—where all Hidden Springs residents go to pick up their mail.
Martin said that people in Hidden Springs know each other and interact more than in an average subdivision. "This was engineered for people to meet each other," Martin said over a hearty bowl of soup at the Merc. "Developers can't create community; they can help facilitate it."
Still, many of the development's amenities have not become self-supporting. Until recently, the Merc operated at a loss and was subsidized by the development's marketing budget, Martin said. A Hidden Springs family now owns and operates the restaurant independently.
Ada County's Planned Community definition—A well-designed small-town or urban-type development characterized by a wide mix of uses, trip capture, connectivity within the community, conservation of open spaces, preservation of environmental attributes; and, which places an emphasis on community character and heritage and on forming a sense of community; and, which demonstrates that its utilities and services are self-supporting and not subsidized by residents living outside the community.
And the charter school, which gets high ratings from Hidden Springs residents, has not seen the level of enrollment it needs to operate, despite an influx of students from outside of Hidden Springs. According to a Dec. 19, 2008, letter from its board president, the charter school is considering dropping its charter and merging into the greater Boise School District.
Aware of some of these problems, Ada County revised its planned community ordinance in 2006, changing the application procedures for new developments and putting more teeth into the biennial reviews the county conducts. And county planners, at the behest of the commissioners, have been working on a major revision to the ordinance, which has not been made public.
"What they would like the ability to do in the new ordinance is look at a proposed planned community from a planning perspective and say, 'Is this an appropriate location for a planned community?'" said Jay Gibbons, Ada County planning and zoning administrator.
County commissioners also want to change the way developers pay for the permit process.
"If we could segment this thing a little differently we could make some important decisions up front," said Commission Chairman Fred Tilman.
Rather than large upfront fees, the county is considering annual or periodic fees that would pay for ongoing administrative duties in reviewing and monitoring the large developments.
Commissioner Paul Woods, who leaves office this week after one term, said that the self-sufficiency of a planned community—its ability to "capture trips"—should be its major selling point to the county.
"From my perspective, it's the primary rationale that a county government should use to allow urban-like development to occur outside of areas of impact," Woods said.
The need for frequent trips to town remains the primary complaint among Hidden Springs residents, according to Ada County's final review of the development, issued earlier this year. Only 15 percent of residents agree that there has been sufficient reduction in the need to go off campus, while 43 percent disagree.
Martin said that Hidden Springs residents make half the number of trips of the average county resident, but acknowledged that the neighborhood is not close enough to any major employer to provide significant numbers of nearby jobs.
Some people in Idaho do not want to live in an urban setting, Martin said.
"It's a matter of collaborating and not condemning anything that is outside the urban boundary," Martin said. "How can you be more responsible with green field and edge development ... I'll bet you that there will be, in the next decade, major employment on the Highway 55 corridor."
A decade ago, Ada County took the same bet. And just last month, the developers of Dry Creek Ranch made similar promises to a new crop of county commissioners, assuring the county that their plan met all of the legal requirements, including stricter development agreements than prior planned communities.
"I think a lot of those questions, what could we have done better or different, have been thought about and looked at as the newer planned communities have gone through the process," Dry Creek attorney and former Canyon County Commissioner Todd Lakey told Boise Weekly. "I think there will be opportunities to live and work there."
See the 2008 Hidden Springs survey at citydesk.boiseweekly.com.