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Treasure Valley population sprawl tops in Northwest

Joe Kolman
The Idaho Statesman

Once again, Boise tops a list.

We've been named the nation´s best biking town and among the best places to do business, attributes that likely helped attract record numbers of new residents during the 1990s. The result: the most sprawling city in the Pacific Northwest, according to a report released by an environmental group.

Sprawl is a dirty word to local leaders and others involved with growth issues, but the analysis Northwest Environment Watch of Seattle released today is based on a simple premise: the fewer people living on an acre of land, the more likely a city faces increasing traffic, limited funding for new services, air pollution and loss of farm land – topics familiar to Treasure Valley residents.

The organization compared the greater Boise area, which includes all of Ada County, to the metropolitan areas of Seattle, Portland, Eugene, Ore., and Spokane, and Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia.

The study found that in 2000, about 7 percent of Ada County residents lived in “compact neighborhoods” defined as more than 12 residents per acre. That is more than double the percentage in 1990.

Boise lags behind three similar sized cities in the percentage of people living in compact development. The city lags slightly behind Eugene and Spokane and pales in comparison to Victoria. One of every three Victoria residents lives in a compact neighborhood.

“Boise is still a very rapidly growing city,” said Clark Williams-Derry, the group´s research director, “and the way it manages that growth over the … next couple of decades is really going to shape the city in fundamental ways that maybe we can´t predict right now, but at least we should be paying attention to.”

The population boom may have caught Treasure Valley communities off guard in terms of planning for growth, but officials from Boise to Parma now realize they share many of the same concerns about the effects of growth, said Elizabeth Conner, director of Treasure Valley Partners, a growth issues group made up of elected officials.

“If we plan right, 300 people will do less damage to the environment than 30 people unplanned for will do,” Conner said. “It will behoove us to build in a more cohesive and coherent pattern. And we´ll get there.”

Cities in the valley are working to revitalize downtowns, which includes building more high-density housing. Boise and its two largest neighbors, Meridian and Eagle, encourage development of land within city limits. An Ada County Highway District consultant is talking to officials about a regional development plan, which could set a goal of encouraging compact growth. Each community now has a plan for growth.

The ACHD does not have enough money to keep building roads for far-flung developments, spokesman Craig Quintana said.

Of the cities in the study, the Boise area experienced the fastest growth rate in the 1990s. Also, sprawl in some of the other cities is limited by geography, such as Puget Sound in Seattle, or regulations such as growth boundaries.

Williams-Derry said the study used 12 residents per acre as a benchmark because that is a density at which there are enough people to support public transit. Low-density development is among the reasons ValleyRide, the local public transportation agency, is considering cutting back or eliminating service to some areas.

In the Treasure Valley in 2000, there were pockets with more than 12 people per acre, mostly in Boise, including north of downtown.

But Census 2000 showed only one such area in Meridian and none in Eagle.

The study shows that work needs to be done to increase density, said Jon Barrett of Idaho Smart Growth, a group that promotes compact development. That may include a regional plan and reducing fees charged developers for building in targeted areas, he said.

Barrett added that developers and elected officials are doing a better job of fighting sprawl than a decade ago. “It´s not all bad news,” Barrett said. “I think we have made progress.”