Battle Over Ustick Heats Up 

City of Boise memo advises "alarming" strategy

Relations between the City of Boise and the Ada County Highway District have become increasingly acrimonious as the start date for the Ustick Road widening project draws closer.

The two sparring entities, who disagree over just how Idaho's biggest city should be managing its explosive growth, are waging an escalating paper battle.

Last week, it was ACHD's turn to fire: The agency released an internal Boise City memo, which outlines just how the city might trip up ACHD when it comes to Ustick. The unsigned and undated document, which has Boise City Director of Planning Bruce Chatterton's name on its masthead, proposed ways to drive up the cost of land purchases for the project, and increase ACHD's exposure to private lawsuits. The proposed plan was designed to drive ACHD back to the bargaining table.

"The purpose in doing this would be to increase the cost of right-of-way purchase for ACHD and/or increase the likelihood of private lawsuits against ACHD," the memo read. "This should be considered an extreme measure that may have many ramifications."

"They were trying to increase the cost of the project in a Machiavellian way, putting the little guy between a rock and a hard place," said Craig Quintana, spokesman for ACHD. "It's making private individuals pawns."

The document weighed the pros and cons of various methods to implement the plan, including notifying ACHD of their decision via an additional meeting ("Disadvantages: we have already had several discussions with ACHD"), using the city council meetings to enact the new policy in public ("Disadvantages: Start an immediate press war") and by contacting homeowner attorneys ("Disadvantages: Not a quick solution. Amicus brief may further damage relationship with ACHD"). The memo also explored sending letters to property owners informing them of the impact zoning could have on their reduced lots ("Disadvantages: Perceived as undermining ACHD. Could worsen relationship. Already approved one zoning certificate.").

Maryanne Jordan, Boise City Council president, said the city didn't act on the ideas, and that the memo itself isn't unusual.

"It's an internal discussion of options, pretty common everywhere," Jordan said.

The ACHD picked up some new ammo last month, when a legal opinion from the Idaho Attorney General's Office stated that ACHD is not bound by the city's comprehensive plan. The opinion, citing Idaho Code, stated:"...a single countywide highway district need only 'take into consideration' the comprehensive general plan of the appropriate county or city planning agency." The opinion was requested by State Rep. Max Black, a Boise Republican.

But City Hall isn't buying it.

"The people directly affected by roadway issues are Boise City constituents and ACHD constituents and we believe that we must act in their best interests," said Mayor Dave Bieter in a prepared statement. "The citywide survey [conducted in fall 2005] indicated that access to public transportation was in the top 10 of issues most important to citizens. We will continue to work closely with ACHD to achieve what is best for the citizens of Boise."

ACHD representatives have referred to Boise's efforts to stall the widening of Ustick as attempts at "social engineering," a jab the city doesn't mind, said Elizabeth Duncan, spokeswoman for the city.

"I bet the people of Los Angeles wish someone had engaged in a little social engineering 50 years ago," Duncan said.

As to the memo, the document expressed concern by city staff that the city could back itself into a corner if it took a stand on zoning on Ustick, forcing the city to take the same stand on any future land condemnations sought by agencies like ACHD. The memo also noted that other options for transporting people in the city are limited.

"If the city should find a way to back ACHD off of going forward with Ustick, then neighboring corridors will be widened to deal with the impacts. ACHD sees itself in the road-building, traffic-moving business." At the same time, the memo's authors admitted, "alternate forms of dealing with traffic congestion are not ready to be implemented in the valley."

According to Quintana, the memo shows that the city considered manipulating residents as a means to undermine ACHD's job of providing the valley with an effective transportation network.

"It's just alarming, the strategy they were mulling," said Quintana. "I hoped they have backed away."

Jordan said attempts at mediation have been frustrated by the ACHD. She also said the city disagrees with the highway district's decision to seize portions of private property through eminent domain and settlements, rather than paying for the entire lots. She noted ACHD purchased whole lots when expanding Curtis Road.

"Five lanes were done with the purchase of whole homes, and the neighborhood is still very healthy," Jordan said. "If Ustick is going to be 5 lanes, that's fine, but don't leave remnant parcels in its wake."

Jordan added that the expansion project could result in bedroom windows only five to 10 feet away from the roadway, and would reduce options for future use of the properties due to changed setbacks from the road.

But the heart in the conflict is not Ustick; it's differing philosophies about transportation, and how best to address increasing sprawl in Ada County. The ACHD sums up their purpose in a single sentence on its Web site: "To provide the best public highway system for the safe and efficient movement of people and goods in Ada County."

According to Quintana, road expansion is unavoidable in Ada County, but the ACHD is frustrated by what it considers city interference.

"The city wants to under-build Ustick, which will push traffic elsewhere," Quintana said. "It's just like water, it'll follow the path of least resistance."

Quintana also added that the highway district (the only one of its kind in the nation) was created by voters in 1971.

"Their quibble is with the voters who took control of the roads away, because of the way they were handling the roads," Quintana said.

But Jordan said the ACHD's philosophy on transportation is short-sighted, and that land use decisions should guide transportation planning, not just traffic.

"We don't believe that protecting neighborhoods and moving traffic is mutually exclusive," Jordan said.

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