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Avimor and More

Controversial community's developer says it's all but a sure thing; others could be on the way

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For opponents of sprawl, the prospect of 680 high-end homes-- with the promise of more--getting plunked down in the foothills north of Eagle qualifies as a bummer. But what might be more depressing is the likelihood that their protests, made at a public meeting last week and to be continued at another one next month, are all but moot.

By the time opponents reach the microphone at the January 11 public hearing before Ada County Commissioners to testify against the project, the chances of them actually stopping the massive project are slim at best, most involved with the project agree. Of course, this is through no fault of the opponents.

Nor is it necessarily the result of schemes of the developers, Arizona-based SunCor Development Company. Suncor did what developers have done as long as builders have been turning up soil: they saw a market for their product, found a location and waited until market and political conditions were ripe.

They began in 2003, when a genial Canadian-born planner-turned-development-manager named Bob Taunton was asked by his bosses at Suncor, a multimillion-dollar subsidiary of Pinnacle West, holding company for Arizona Public Service, to spearhead a new development in Idaho. Taunton had been the manager of a well-heeled Suncor community outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, and confessed, "I didn't know anything about Boise."

Taunton and Suncor quickly connected with the McLeod family, a ranching clan that controlled 38,000 acres of foothills and valley bottom land called Spring Valley Ranch between Boise and Horseshoe Bend, straddling Highway 55. The McLeods and Taunton devised a way to put the land into a trust that would allow Suncor to build and the McLeods to reap the benefits.

All they needed was permission from Ada County, where a majority of the property is located.

Anyone who has followed development issues knows that wending your way through permitting processes is an arduous task, requiring countless hours of meetings, exchanges of reams of paperwork, site visits and more meetings. And at first, Taunton said, it wasn't going so smoothly with Ada County's planning staff. "We weren't communicating very well initially," Taunton said. "But we got over that."

That's at least partly because shortly after Taunton and his peers began preparing their project, Ada County underwent a governmental sea change, the impact of which is likely to go much further than 38,000 acres. With the arrival of two new commissioners, Chairman Rick Yzaguirre and Commissioner Fred Tilman, along with the re-election of Judy Peavey-Derr, Taunton and others noticed that the staff of Ada County's Planning and Zoning Department began to change. Planners with whom Taunton was having troubles communicating left, and new ones took their place. Nichole Baird-Spencer, once the lead for the county's development services division, now works for the City of Eagle, which opposes the Avimor development.

"When I moved here, I thought, 'Wow, the county planning department has it going on," said Jon Barrett with Idaho Smart Growth, a group that is opposed to Avimor. "Then the wheels came off the department."

Few people will talk on the record about why the change occurred, but Barrett isn't afraid to speculate that the new commissioners were looking for something different from their planners.

Whatever happened, animosity is evident. When Baird-Spencer arose to speak against Avimor at the County Commissioners' public hearing on the project this month, she was heckled by commissioners, several witnesses stated. Kathleen Lacey, a planner for the City of Boise, which also opposes the project, was also treated combatively by Comissioner Peavey-Derr when she rose to testify.

"It was totally disrespectful," Barrett said.

Therein lies the difficulty for people like Barrett or other sprawl opponents. So long as the relationship between the planners for the cities and the county is strained, they say, projects like Avimor are inevitable. They may not be to the liking of Boise's progressives, but they are completely legal under current planning regimes.

In fact, when asked what might happen if the commissioners said "No" to Avimor's proposal when they take it up again next month, Taunton's face went a bit blank.

"We have met their requirements for a planned community," Taunton explained. "I'm confident it will be approved."

There may be conditions and qualifications with how Avimor is built, Taunton said. But make no mistake; short of something unexpected, the project will be built. And no one, least of all Suncor, expects it will stop there. "There will be more development there," Taunton said. "But this will all be done in a public process."

Opponents to Avimor don't like the development for reasons best summed up by Boise's Mayor, Dave Bieter. "It's the old real estate line: location, location, location," said Bieter in an e-mailed statement. "The problem with Avimor isn't what it is. The problem is where it is."

Likewise, Rachel Winer of the Idaho Conservation League, which is uncharacteristically involving itself in a local development issue, said her group's objection "is really about the location."

Taunton has his doubts about Bieter's motives. "Sometimes what they say isn't the real agenda," Taunton said. "It's the fact that we don't represent a tax base for (the City of Boise). That appears to be the biggest concern for them."

Avimor, Bieter said, "is a classic example of sprawl that doesn't pay its own way."

Not so, says Taunton. The development has already agreed with the Ada County Sheriff's Department to provide money for an extra deputy. All Avimor roads, including necessary changes to Highway 55, will be paid for by Avimor. They'll also build a school.

None of which changes the fact that the development will ultimately lead to more people and more cars. The Idaho Transportation Department estimates the project will add approximately 7,255 daily trips to an area that now sees about 9,400 trips per day.

A portion of the debate over Avimor centers on just how the development would fit within the Blueprint For Good Growth, a nascent effort to re-write the Treasure Valley's vision and rules for growth. Such a document, boosters say, could help the county make decisions about developments that don't fit. Whether or not Avimor, an exhaustively planned community with tasteful color schemes and low-slung but expensive houses, fits such a blueprint is one debate. Whether or not the Blueprint itself will ever be meaningful, or even complete, given the difference in vision between the Treasure Valley's local government entities, is another.

"What has me pessimistic is there's such a lack of cooperation between the cities and the county," Barrett said. "What I sense is a kind of sophomoric attitude, frankly."

The quality of the debate notwithstanding, most observers and participants agree that until such issues are resolved at the county and city level, the barn door for developments like Avimor has been left wide open. Taunton said his group isn't the only one looking longingly at the Highway 55 corridor. The McLeod family itself, sensing an opportunity, has already withdrawn thousands of acres from the Suncor trust arrangement, to seek their own development plans. Other proposals are in the works for surrounding properties.

"There's a demand," Taunton said simply. "If you restrict development in one location, it occurs in another. The thing is, there will be development on Spring Valley Ranch.