Hell Road

New water mainline project blamed for crippling Hill Road nursery


Sometime in November--United Water officials aren't sure exactly when--thousands of Boise residents living north and west of Hill Road will be under pressure: the kind of pressure they like, from showers and sprinklers.

But the same pipeline that will shoot higher water pressure up Hill Road is also to blame for a different kind of pressure--the kind under which two local entrepreneurs have watched their business circle the drain.

"The day they started construction, our sales dropped about 75 percent compared to last year," said Lindsay Schramm, co-owner of the North End Organic Nursery.

Schramm looked out her office window to an empty parking lot and hundreds of plants, selling for 50 percent off.

"Two Mondays ago, we had a $22 day." Her voice softened to a whisper. "Yeah, $22."

As quiet as it was at the nursery, the commotion about 100 yards away was earth shattering--literally. Owyhee Construction crews working for United Water, continued to pile-drive through Hill Road. The $1.9-million project, which will put more than 7,000 feet of 24-inch water main under Hill Road from Harrison Boulevard to 36th Street, was in its final stages. But for the owners of North End Organic Nursery, their plight will get worse before it gets better.

"We just got word that they're going to shut off a stretch of the road again from Oct. 4-7," said Elisa Clark, the nursery's co-owner. "We honestly don't know what to do anymore."

United Water's initial plans never would have hindered any business, inconvenienced any motorists, or even dug up any of Hill Road. In fact, the company's Plan A was to bring huge amounts of water closer to its customers without having to push it through a new mainline up Hill Road.

"We thought the best solution would be to build a reservoir, a huge storage tank, at the top of Hill Road," said Mark Snider, public affairs manager for United Water. "That way, we could have filled it during off-peak hours--overnight--and in the morning gravity from the reservoir could feed the homes. Everybody would have had the right pressure. It would have drained and we could fill it up again overnight."

But Snider said after exhaustive negotiations, United Water couldn't come to an agreement with a private landowner to secure a site in the Boise Foothills.

"So our engineers had to make a decision to get water into that area," said Snider. "By the way, our No. 1 priority is fire protection, and if the pressure is not adequate then we need to address that as soon as possible."

United Water isn't replacing an existing water mainline beneath Hill Road. There was never one there in the first place.

"Water service to the Foothills and north of Hill Road has been coming in on, let's say, surface streets," said Snider. "We're putting in the equivalent of an underground interstate."

The project got under way in September 2010, but construction crews ran into a rather large underground challenge.

"We got a pretty big surprise," said Snider. "We found an underground canal that nobody knew about. That was right about 20th Street. Needless to say, we had to stop the project, and rethink things with a plan to start again in the spring of 2011."

"I started making phone calls in the spring," Schramm remembered. "I knew those construction crews could start anytime, running right in front of our business. So we asked for a meeting with everyone involved."

Representatives from the nursery and United Water sat down with officials from the Ada County Highway District, which governs all things from curb to curb, including construction.

"United Water put a map in front of us and said they were going to close down the whole road," said Schramm. "We were shocked because we were being informed but not consulted. I said they were going to put a brand new business to death."

Schramm and Clark bought the property and opened an abbreviated season in the fall of 2009. Their official grand opening was the spring of 2010. Selling plants, soils and fertilizers, Clark said the nursery is the only one of its kind in the Northwest.

"But basically, we were pied in the face," said Schramm. "When they told us they were going to shut down the road, they just walked away. That's when I called my lawyer."

John Runft of Runft and Steele in Boise said he has known Lindsay Schramm for years.

"Like a lot of small businesses, they didn't have the funds to litigate this matter," said Runft. "I encouraged them to communicate first with ACHD. And I have to tell you, she was rather successful through ACHD to get the water company to change some of their plans."

Schramm said through significant leverage from the highway district, United Water agreed to keep at least one lane of Hill Road open through much of the construction.

"We must tell you that the folks at ACHD have been angels," said Schramm. "The new director at ACHD, Bruce Wong, has really been our advocate. United Water gave him the same speech, but he said, 'Uh-uh. You're not going to tell us what to do.' So he made sure at least one lane of traffic was open."

But Schramm said the limited traffic has still done significant damage to the business.

"When we see people in downtown Boise, they tell us, 'I didn't even think you were open,' or 'I just don't want to go down Hill Road anymore,'" said Schramm. "It has just gotten worse and worse. It is such a nightmare to get through here."

Schramm asked United Water for some kind of help in advertising to help her struggling business but to no avail.

"We had done other projects like this previously, and we just didn't feel that in this case that was an appropriate use of our dollars," said Snider. "We just weren't going to be able to assist them with any promotion."

For now, Schramm and Clark said their business is limping to the end of a horrible season. They said they'll try to open a Christmas tree shop later this year, but they just can't commit to the spring of 2012 yet.

"We don't know if we'll have the cash on hand to reopen," said Schramm.