Boise’s future: Council unanimously adopts zoning code revamp, with changes: ‘a home… is fundamental’

By: Margaret Carmel – BoiseDev Sr. Reporter

June 16, 2023

It was an emotional night on the dais at Boise City Hall.

After three days of public testimony and more than four years of work, the Boise City Council unanimously approved its new zoning code. This 611-page document is set to replace Boise’s nearly 60-year-old current code. It reenvisions rules on what can be built where, how dense development can be, and how it gets approved.

The code change increases density allowed along major transit corridors and in neighborhoods, as long as a project is affordably priced or has sustainability components, and cuts parking requirements and much more. Proponents say this new approach will allow for more diverse housing types built within Boise city limits, which lends itself to more affordable options in the decades to come and more walkable, mixed-use communities instead of endlessly sprawling suburbs.

All six city council members, including the two elected by district, the two elected at large, and the two appointed by Mayor Lauren McLean to fill recently vacated seats, spoke in support of the zoning code change before the vote, as well as McLean herself. Some of them had emotion in their voice as they described their feelings about the code. This comes after the overwhelming majority of those who testified supported the change.

“We all care most – and what’s most valuable is – we take care of our families, and we have homes,” McLean said, tears welling in her eyes. “Because a home at its core is the fundamental foundation for a thriving city.”

This is not the same code the council saw at the start of the week.

One of the changes that garnered the most debate from city council members was a city council proposal cut the affordability deed restrictions from 50 years to 20, in the hopes of making it a more enticing prospect for developers to take on. City Council President Pro Tem Jimmy Hallyburton and City Council Member Latonia Haney Keith said they preferred to keep the 50-year requirement, but they were outvoted by the other council members. Staff recommended keeping the length of time at 50 years.

“The best thing that could happen for some of our lower income and most vulnerable populations is they would have places to stay in our highest property value neighborhoods,” Hallyburton said.

City Council Member Patrick Bageant said he agreed with the move short the deed restriction requirement, noting he felt 50 years was too long.

“Twenty years is one generation,” he said. “Twenty years reflects some humility that we know what would be better, but we don’t know what’s perfect.”

Planning and Development Services Director Tim Keane started the meeting with a presentation of changes to the proposal staff suggested. They ranged from smaller items, like the process for approval and the size of trees allowed under powerlines, to more significant changes like removing owner-occupied requirements for accessory dwelling units. Many of the changes were driven by ideas, thoughts and complaints from citizens who testified

Accessory dwelling unit regulations were also a hot topic during public testimony. This change cuts any off-street parking required for ADUs, the requirement the main home be owner-occupied. This, in turn, strikes the incentive that an ADU could be located on a property that wasn’t owner-occupied as long as it had its rent capped. ADUs could also be a maximum of 900 square feet, instead of 700.

Requirements for when neighbors are notified about projects was another hot topic during public testimony. One of the changes to the code draft staff suggested allows immediate neighbors to be notified after certain types of projects – known as Type 2 – are approved. These are projects approved administratively approved if they meet technical requirements set out by the city. The original proposal would have only sent notice of these projects to neighborhood associations, not adjacent property owners.

Bicycle parking requirements were also scaled up. The recommended change would require one bicycle space per unit, an additional half bicycle space per every additional bedroom and one short-term space for every ten units.

Other changes include:

  • Large trees allowed in 8-foot landscape buffers
  • Medium-size trees permitted below powerlines where they fit
  • Electrical substations would be allowed in any zone, including residential areas, as long as they comply with new special screening rules
  • Daycares allowed by right in any mixed-use zone
  • Allowing triplexes and fourplexes to either meet affordable requirements or sustainability requirements, not both
  • Transitions are required between mixed-use zones to lessen the impact to R2 and R3 zones next door
  • Adding opportunity for businesses to apply for a conditional use permit to include fewer parking spaces than required
  • Increasing testimony time for neighborhood associations at public hearings to 10 minutes
  • Requirement that conditions of approval be completed within one year of the issuance of a certificate of occupancy
  • Zoning code will come before Boise City Council once a year for review and status update

The council decided to set the code adoption date as December 1, 2023. The existing code will remain in place until then.

If every city council member had it their way, they would have made changes to the code. But, they all opted for compromise and to pass the code.

City Council President Holli Woodings described her childhood and, later adulthood, living in a variety of types of homes in the North End where she could walk to various local businesses and other opportunities. She said the mixed-use nature of the neighborhood allowed her to stay in the same place, while growing into different types of places. She said this code will allow that to be possible for other neighborhoods throughout Boise.

“We’re trying to get at those neighborhoods that provide a variety of living opportunities for different times in our lives,” she said.

City Council Member Colin Nash got choked up with emotion as he made his remarks prior to the vote. He gestured to his 8-year-old son sitting in the back of the chamber and described his family’s story of scraping bye to buy a first home, his choice to sell to help pay for law school and his struggle to afford to buy another one now that prices have increased astronomically.

He said the new code would help more people have available choices of places to rent or buy and he was happy to support the change.

City Council Member Luci Willits said there were definitely things in the code she was hoping to monitor and possibly change down the road, but she was happy to pass it because it moved toward more deregulation of the housing market, noting “choice is fundamental to the American way.”

“Are we reducing red tape?” she said. “Are we allowing the market to innovate? Are we helping private property owners to invest in Boise families? And when I look at this overall, the answer is yes.”

“I’m proud of the effort that’s gone into it and I’m proud to be part of it,” he said.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly attributed the change to cut the affordability deed restriction from 50 to 20 years. It has been corrected to reflect that this move came from city council members and city staff recommended keeping it at 50 years.