Price of Place: Putting a Monetary Value on Boise's Treasured Open Space 

Touted as one of Boise's greatest assests, how do you measure the value of the Foothills?

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Prior to the levy, Boiseans watched as creeping urban development popped up on picturesque hills. Near Table Rock, land sparsely used for decades was already filled with homes.

An early believer in conservation, Lauren McLean, manager of the 2001 Boise Foothills Open Space Campaign and now a Boise City Council member, was admittedly surprised by Garrahan's conclusion.

"In the last 10 years, I haven't walked around thinking about how much money from all the different pieces the Foothills are worth to us, because there's nontangible placemaking value in it," said McLean.

Boise's Foothills Planning Area makes up the northeastern boundary of the city limits, accounting for 20 percent of Boise's total area. More than 8,000 acres of the area's 15,086 acres are set aside for open space. However, the city's slice makes up only a portion of more than 50,000 acres stretching into national forest lands.

Mostly uninhabited, residential development accounts for 17 percent of the area, with single-family residential development covering 2,722 acres and multi-family residential taking up just 24 acres. Another 6 percent, 1,037 acres, is devoted to park, recreation and open space use, and 15 percent, 2,411 acres, is in public or semi-public use. Just more than 4 percent of Boiseans, roughly 10,229 people, lived in the Foothills area in 2009, a number expected to increase to 11,247 by 2025.

"The important piece is that it looks the way it did 12 years ago, even though we've grown by who knows how many thousands of people, and the boom continued until the Great Recession," said McLean.  

While it would have been nice to have strong data showing value of conservation during the levy campaign, McLean said even opponents wouldn't need it now.

"I think it's always nice to be able to have a numbers case of why it makes sense for the people in this community that don't buy it," she said. "But from the beginning, this was never about how much money this would be worth in the long term."

Even voters weren't as concerned about how much they would pay to preserve the Foothills, but how it added value and protected community assets, according to McLean.

"While it's great to have, and these numbers might have been great to be able to convince the Chamber [of Commerce] 12 years ago to get on board, rather than expending every moment trying to fight us, but now even the Chamber wouldn't need these numbers to know," she said. "Everybody here intrinsically knows that this was the right thing to do, that it was a mistake to oppose it and that you would support it the next time around."

McLean noted Garrahan's $11 million figure is just for one year, 2011.  

"In that one year, he could say we broke even," she said. "If you carry his argument out, that every year this is pumping $11 million of value into our community, in different ways."  

"I don't think I expected the number to be as large for one year," said Julia Grant, open space manager for the city's Department of Parks and Recreation. "And he took rather conservative--like when you look at the ecosystems, the range on the ecosystems, the different kind of ecosystems in our Foothills--he always went with the low, low as he made his final assumptions."

A lot has changed in the Foothills in 50 years. Grant outlined Foothills levy purchases, which protected 10,500 acres through donations, trades, land swaps and purchases.

"Total market value is about $35 million for the land that has been protected," said Grant.

The last acquisition swapped $500,000 for a 154-acre parcel adjacent to Collister Drive, connecting Polecat Gulch with public trail access. Grant said it can be a lengthy process to acquire new land.

"You know that Polecat one, that was eight years making something happen. There's other priorities, but it's just having all the pieces fall into place," she said. But the city isn't the only game in town preserving open space. The Land Trust of the Treasure Valley, a nonprofit dedicated to conservation, recently purchased 59 acres of Foothills land. It rallied approximately 700 donors to contribute $580,000, according to executive director Tim Breuer, to purchase a "cornerstone" of a 300- to 400-acre area called Hillside to the Hollow.

"You don't want to spend a lot of time looking backward, but glancing back to see where we've been--it goes back further than 12 years. This stuff didn't all start with the levy," he said. "That was a watershed moment where there was a building of a lot of people's hard work and momentum to get there."

Ridge to Rivers was an early phase of formalizing the community's relationship with its Foothills. Now comprised of 130 miles of trails, the original system began as old motorcycle paths crisscrossing public and private land.

"Recreation was always a component," said Breuer. "And in some ways, the effort was almost as much about trail containment and reduction as it was about trail creation and expansion. We probably restored more trails than we built, because there were just trails everywhere."

Competing priorities for open space also led to controversy. Foothills levy funds remain at $3.4 million because of a controversial sale of the Hammer Flat region to Idaho Fish and Game. The sale was opposed by a group of hang gliders, who took issue with plans to bar the sport from the area.

"There was a sense that a small subset of people were frustrated that Hammer Flat was being used for something other than recreation," said McLean. "But the language of the levy was very clear, that recreation was just one of five ... values to be looked for, and one of the five is just fine. We've done strictly recreational purchases, and then Hammer Flat was a very important wildlife habitat purchase."

However, as of this year, and thanks to continued dialogue between gliders and Fish and Game officials, a conditional use permit will open Hammer Flat for flying between May 1 and Nov. 15.

Debate between those who use the land, those who develop it and those who conserve it continues. For the Land Trust of the Treasure Valley, Breuer said his organization looks to work with city officials for new ways to acquire open space using remaining Foothills levy funds.

"There's an opportunity to look at other creative ideas that will leverage that money," he said. "The easy, what people call the low-hanging fruit, it's going to be harder to do acquisition projects, I think, going forward. We're kind of running out of those fire-sale projects, and things are going to need more creativity."

McLean believes it's time to drain the Foothills levy fund and begin anew.

"In my mind, we need to, rather than slowly use this money, really take advantage of all the deals that are on the table waiting for this money, close out the fund and do it again. The public's ready to act."According to McLean, there are enough people who think the current fund needs to be drained-- or "finished"--first.

"I'd be more than happy to say let's add to the coffers now, but if we are to wait until we finish it first, I'd like to see that finish within the year. Meaning the balance goes to zero."

She said modern levies have linked conservation, sustainability and quality of life to education and the economy, and she'd like to see a second Foothills levy innovate in similar ways.

"When we ran the Foothills levy 12 years ago, it was really kind of forward-thinking for its time. But what I would say now is, there are so many other exciting ways to look at open space acquisition levies, that in the same way that we led 12 years ago with an idea, I'd really like to be creative and innovative with our next levy we do," she said. "So it could go beyond just open space acquisition."

Conversations about the push and pull of development and conservation will continue to take place. But McLean feels as though the community understands the value of its open space.

"I would say the biggest change out there is, 12 years ago being in those hills, any time of day, you would hardly run into anybody, and I wish we had numbers to back this up," she said, "[but] even though they were barely used, this community saw the value in setting them aside and making sure that people could use them," she said.

"Every single spring that I experience out there, I find more and more people joining me in the hills."

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