Development or Deer? 

Citizens, city, county clash over Hammer Flat subdivision

The 700-acre Hammer Flat plateau, located near Lucky Peak Reservoir east of Boise, is critical habitat for deer, elk and antelope in the cold months. But furry ungulates aren't the only creatures interested in Hammer Flat. Last spring, a local developer purchased the property with the intent of building a 1,400-residence community on the plateau. Now local advocates, experts and Boise City officials are expressing concern that the development would eliminate the wintering grounds for Idaho wildlife, including the largest mule deer herd in the state.

The importance of Hammer Flat is well known to Idaho Fish and Game managers. The plateau is adjacent to the Boise River Wildlife Management Area, and the combined public and private property provide about 2,900 acres of habitat. "Hammer Flat is right in the heart of critical wintering range," said Eric Leitsinger, an environmental biologist at Fish and Game. "Animals don't know anything about private property boundaries. It's lower elevation winter range that is extremely critical in more severe winters." Leitsinger said the development would reduce the habitat acreage at Hammer Flat by about one quarter

That threat to wildlife prompted local citizens to get organized. Tony Jones, who lives near Hammer Flat, said he realized earlier this year how unaware the public was of the plateau. "It's time that the rest of the people around the county get to know what Hammer Flat is all about," he said. "It's about the last really, truly viable winter wildlife habitat for deer and elk in Ada County."

To that end, Jones founded Save the Plateau, a group of volunteers committed to finding solutions to help preserve Hammer Flat. Since February, the organization has been circulating a petition opposing high-density residential development in the area. "Save the Plateau isn't strictly anti-growth or anti-development," Jones remarked "We are pro-intelligent development. We believe that development has to be appropriate for time and place. [Developing] Hammer Flat seems to be wildly inappropriate for this particular place and this particular time."

Jones and Save the Plateau are banking on an important factor for their campaign: Hammer Flat is zoned as "rural preservation." That means the area is limited to one residence per 40 acres. "If the county did no more than enforce current zoning regulations, you would conceivably get as many as 17 houses," noted Jones. "The deer could probably live with that."

In order to be allowed to build their proposed 1,400 homes, the subdivision's developers, Boise-based Skyline Development, would have to convince Ada County to change the zoning to accommodate a high-density community. But 1,400 houses in the midst of winter game habitat could be bad news for the critters of the county. "Right now, there are over 300 species that live there," Leitsinger explained. "You put in a subdivision, you change what can survive there. That winter range is gone."

Letisinger says he and other managers are hoping for a different proposal. "We'd prefer no development, but we realize that's not an option. If it has to be developed, we'd prefer something that minimizes the impact to the animals."

The prospect of a subdivision at Hammer Flat also aroused the concern of Boise City officials, who have said the development would conflict with the city's commitment to preserving open spaces in the foothills--a priority voters supported in the Foothills Levy of 2001. Although Ada County planners haven't said they will approve the subdivision, their history of applauding planned communities was warning enough to draw a response from the city. In a letter to Commissioner Rick Yzaguirre early this year, Boise Mayor David Bieter wrote, "From virtually any environmental, infrastructure or public resource perspective, the Hammer Flat property appears inappropriate for a high-density development." Bieter and other city officials were concerned not only about Hammer Flat as a wildlife resource, but also for the strain that an additional outer city subdivision would place on Boise public systems.

But ultimately, Ada County officials, not Boise City, have the ability to approve or reject Skyline's development plan. The question of developing Hammer Flat was controversial enough between county and city to warrant a meeting between officials on June 15 to discuss what the county referred to as "strained intergovernmental relations." That meeting raised concern when it was closed to the public under questionable circumstances. Meetings between officials must be conducted in open session, except under specific conditions so the public can comment on affairs.

Jones was one of several citizens who filed a complaint about the closed meeting. The matter went to the Idaho State Attorney General's Office, which deemed the meeting illegal in a complaint issued by their office. Chairman Rick Yzaguirre responded, "The Legislature recognized in the statute itself a number of specific instances where closed meetings are proper and one of them involves the ability of county commissioners around the State to help their legal counsel defend the county in pending or probable litigation."

The statute allows meetings to be closed for discussion of legal matters, but no legal representatives were in attendance for either party at the meeting. "The fact that no attorney was present should have been a red flag that the meeting was illegal," Jones remarked.

Jones later attempted to obtain the minutes of the meeting from two commissioners but was refused on both occasions. However, in the county's response to the complaint, the commissioners declared, "The subject notes have not been withheld from public inspection in any way, as best reflected by the fact they are an actual attachment to the plaintiff's (Attorney General's) complaint."

Jones says his repeated unsuccessful attempts to obtain copies of the minutes and the commissioner's claim to their availability reveals a discrepancy in the legal matter. "In my mind, misrepresenting facts in a sworn statement is a very serious offense," he said.

Whatever the outcome of the pending legal matters with the county, Hammer Flat appears a point of contention between Boise City and Ada County officials. Although Jones and others from Save the Plateau are relieved by the city's stance, they're trying to rally further support for protecting Hammer Flat, such as by looking for an alternative site for the subdivision that would not pose a threat to wildlife communities. "Even a mile away across the river would be a better place," Jones commented. "There would be better access to existing infrastructure, and the impact to wildlife would be reduced by about one one-thousandth."

Jones would ultimately like to see Hammer Flat and the surrounding wildlife area administered as a refuge that could attract tourism and benefit the local economy. He pointed to refuges in Wyoming and Montana that have generated millions of dollars in visitor's fees.

The city's response and citizen involvement make Jones optimistic about the fate of Hammer Flat, but he hopes the county also acknowledges the value of protecting the plateau when they receive the developer's application later this month. "As an economist, it's been my observation that with a lot of environmental issues, whether it's dam breaching or property development it's in the public interest to do the right thing."

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