Idaho Environmental Forum on Planned Communities: What Helps and What Hurts 

click to enlarge Left to right: Jerome Mapp, Doug Fowler and Brandy Wilson spoke in a planned community panel moderated by IEF Chair Dr. Dick Gardner. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • Left to right: Jerome Mapp, Doug Fowler and Brandy Wilson spoke in a planned community panel moderated by IEF Chair Dr. Dick Gardner.
Planned communities—large-scale neighborhoods like Lakewood and River Run that come complete with grocery stores, coffee shops and other amenities—are gaining ground both literally and figuratively in the Treasure Valley, springing up in the Boise Foothills and in public conversation.

That trend has been noticed by the organizers of the Idaho Environmental Forum, which conducts monthly meetings covering issues where urban innovation and the natural environment meet. On April 10, the group convened in the Hoff Building's elegant Crystal Ballroom to hear a panel of speakers discuss "Planned Communities: A Tool to Control Sprawl, or Encourage It?"

The panel was moderated by IEF Chair Dr. Dick Gardner, who introduced the event with a quip:

"In conservative Idaho," he said, "planning is often considered a four-letter word."

click to enlarge Doug Fowler spoke on the process of planning the Harris Ranch community.  - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • Doug Fowler spoke on the process of planning the Harris Ranch community.
Though that earned a laugh from the audience, the speakers who followed—Jerome Mapp, who owns Planning & Facility Management; Doug Fowler, founder of LeNir Ltd., which helped develop Harris Ranch; and Brandy Wilson, a Barber Valley Neighborhood Association board member—all doubled down on the difficulty of creating successful planned communities, both from the developer's and the citizens' points of view.

Mapp kicked off the discussion by laying a historical groundwork for the audience, introducing The Idaho Local Land Use Planning Act of 1975. Before the act set out basic planning and zoning requirements, Mapp said, it was a development free-for-all, with local farmers selling and transitioning small parcels willy-nilly. Even now, the planning process in Idaho is still chock full of roadblocks.

"Idaho is unique, and more unique is Ada County," Mapp said. "Look at Boise ... To develop, you need to have a three-legged stool. You have to have [jurisdiction over] the water, you have to have the sewer, and you have to have the streets. The City of Boise only has one of those."

Fowler, too, spoke on the difficulties of coordinating resources for planned communities, particularly the challenges faced by Harris Ranch, the first Specific Area Plan to be incorporated into Boise city ordinance. As he described it, much of the development and planning stage was taken up with months-long negotiations, including a charrette (an intense planning session) with citizens that lasted four days and evenings.

"You have to be able to listen, and it's really hard to do that when your mouth is open," Fowler said.

That same theme continued when Wilson took the podium. She advised citizens to get involved with the planning process early and often if they want a say in the layout and functionality of their new neighborhoods.

"It makes a big difference in your neighborhood association and your engagement if you have someone in your corner who really understands the language of planning and development," Wilson said. "The best way to understand the language of planning and development is to go serve on the Planning and Zoning Commission."

She also added three traps to avoid, advising citizen groups to focus on design rather than density, refrain from demonizing the developers, and be careful not to "fall into the mindset that you and your neighbors are victims of [a] development."

"Stay calm, stay professional and stay focused," she said. "There's nothing that's harder for somebody who's sitting on the Planning and Zoning Commission than to hear hours of tearful, heartfelt commentary that doesn't give us any way to make changes."

In the Q&A period following the discussion, the panel tackled difficult questions about trail access from planned communities (Fowler said that while access to the Homestead Trail is provided annually by Harris Ranch, there aren't any connections to Table Rock in the works) and the near-impossibility of bringing in amenities before residents.

"You're going to live on a construction site for 10-20 years," said Fowler, as Wilson nodded in agreement. "It's not all it's cracked up to be."
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