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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?


Access to the outdoors defines Idaho's superior quality of life. Here in Boise, that's visible as early morning joggers traverse the extensive Ridge to Rivers trail system before work.

But while those in the business of selling Boise extol the virtues of access to open spaces, until now, they could only wax poetic about a sense of harmony with wild kestrels and deer living miles from Idaho's largest city. A quantitative economic value of open space has remained difficult to pencil out.

A new study by College of William and Mary undergraduate Niall Garrahan assigned a concrete dollar figure to what many have known for a long time: Undeveloped land can be valuable, reaping an estimated $11.9 million in benefits, as reported in his study.

"I was just surprised at how big the final figure came out to be," Garrahan said from his home in Williamsburg, Va.

Garrahan paid for his work with a James Monroe Scholar Program research award, and pieced it together while visiting his aunt in Boise during his 2012 winter break. As a double major in economics and environmental research and policy, the process was a hands-on experience for him. Months later, he finished the 28-page report, "Open Land Utility: A Study of Conservation, Ecosystem Services, and Recreation in Boise, Idaho."

Garrahan's study is one of only a few comprehensive evaluations of the Boise Foothills, despite a successful 2001 serial levy campaign that set aside $10 million to purchase parcels and keep them undeveloped.

More than a decade later, Garrahan calculated the community benefits provided by Boise's open spaces using a number of factors, including value of time given by program volunteers, savings from reduced health care spending brought by increased exercise, public utilities costs savings from undeveloped acreage, and increased property values on neighboring properties. Each piece adds up to a big figure: $11,809,287 for a single year. As in every single year.

"According to the calculations in this report, the city more than broke even on its $10 million investment," wrote Garrahan in the report. "It also appears the economic benefits of the Foothills will continue to positively affect Boise for many years to come."Parks and public commons have been a tenet of urban planning since at least the Industrial Revolution—even America's densest metropolis, New York City, saw fit to carve out 800 acres of prime Manhattan real estate for a "central park" in 1857.

In the 21st century, malls, housing developments and schools have joined governments in setting aside land for parks, river systems and nature preserves. The nonprofit Trust for Public Land has been an advocate of open space for more than 40 years.

According to Jessica Sargent, Trust for Public Land director of conservation economics, expenditures on open space often turn out to be great investments. Every $1 spent returns between $4-$11, she said.

"The range [depends on] a lot of different factors, for example, the longevity of a program," said Sargent.

A program that has existed for 20 years, Sargent said, would provide benefits to the community each year of its existence.

Though conservation researchers like Garrahan look at numerous community benefits to calculate the value of open space, including value for community services, property tax implications and natural resource conservation, "Direct recreational use by residents is one of the highest values compared to other benefits," said Sargent.

Her organization has conducted research across the country, from New Jersey wetlands to Wyoming ranches.

"The concept has been around for a very long time; I think there are more recently because as budgets have become more constrained, folks feel as though this message is more important to get out, that land conservation is not just a luxury, but a necessity for quality of life in communities," said Sargent.

Organizations use her research to appeal to lawmakers, groups of voters mulling a levy or landowners donating to a land trust--helpful tools when budgets are strapped.

"When you compare all of the needs of a community, what we're saying is open space, public lands, are necessary for a happy, healthy community," explained Sargent. "It's not to say that it's more or less important than other needs, but it is certainly one of them."

In Boise, Garrahan used data from sources including U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reports and a multi-agency Boise Foothills Management Plan. Using a Trust for Public Land study, he considered health use value, an examination of health benefits from access to recreation.

"It said that when people meet the minimum exercise requirement, they're actually saving a certain amount of money in health care costs," Garrahan said. "By providing a place like the Foothills, where people could go out and exercise three times a week, you're saving a certain amount for each adult that's meeting those requirements."While his numbers aren't hard and fast, they give an indication of how access to open space just minutes from downtown Boise benefits the community at large.

"It's not hard research, it's kind of social science-based, so I make a lot of assumptions and estimations," he said. "But I think it's pretty realistic based on the other studies that I found."

In east Boise, a real estate developer is building open space into his business. Doug Fowler, founder, president and CEO of real estate development firm Lenir Ltd., is also project manager for the Harris Ranch development, a cluster of homes in a community between the Foothills and Boise River.

"Even though out of 1,100 acres about 700 of it's open space, because of the density that we're doing, we're approved for over 2,500 residential units and 1 million square feet of commercial and retail," said Fowler.

Unlike many subdivisions in Ada County, which do little to make up for turning open space into housing, homeowners in Harris Ranch pay to offset their effects on local wildlife.

"All of our homeowners pay a $300 fee when they buy a piece of property here," said Fowler. "You can get $200 of it back if you take part in a habitat restoration program, or if you take part in a seminar, or you go on a bird watching tour--anything having to do with conservation, wildlife, education. And you get $200 back. But also, our homeowners pay as part of their [homeowners association dues], a $100 annual fee for wildlife mitigation. Eventually, we'll have our own conservation director--that'll be a full-time position--and we can do habitat restoration, and we can do education projects."

When development is complete, Fowler said residents will commit more than $300,000 a year to a conservation fund separate from his company. Somebody once told him he could get "just as much PR bang for your buck" for half the cost.

"And they said 'Then why are you doing it?' And I said 'to mitigate the effects on wildlife.' That's really why we're doing it," said Fowler.

Harris Ranch Wildlife Mitigation Association board members, a group of former wildlife managers and biologists, plan for mitigation, including tree planting, Foothills conservation and habitat restoration. Fowler said such projects contribute to the long-term vitality of the area.

"Taken to the extreme, if you go down to the Boise River, and you catch trout, or you catch cholera: What do you think is going to happen to your property values?" he said. "And it's not that it's the right thing to do--which it is, and that's always a good thing to do--but there's some real economic benefits for doing it that way."

And for Fowler, of course, that means selling houses. So far, extra fees haven't deterred potential Harris Ranch homeowners, he said.

"It's probably a $300,000 house, so it's about a little over $8.25 a month to protect the amenities that are drawing you out here in the first place, and what we've found thus far, it has not been a negative to sales, it has been a positive," he said.

Fowler describes building a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood, providing access to recreation and designing streets with future bus stops in mind as pieces of one goal.

"It is more work in the short run, and it is worth it," Fowler said. "[W]hen you do it right, your property values won't just be sustained, they'll be enhanced."

In 2001, voters decided to "do it right," too, by opting to preserve Boise's Foothills. A majority voted to create a Foothills Open Space Protection Trust Fund, then tax themselves $10 million to fill it.