Where There's Smoke, There's an ... Airstrip?

Ada County officials must now weigh public safety vs. private property


UPDATE: July 19, 2016

On July 27, Ada County Commissioners will host a public hearing on an appeal of an application for a private landing strip north of Table Rock in the Boise Foothills.

In case you missed it, here is Boise Weekly's news feature on the controversy, published July 6th.

ORIGINAL STORY: July 6, 2016

Ada County officials are facing one last reconsideration for a private airstrip, planned for the very section of the Boise Foothills that saw a raging wildfire threaten one of the fastest-growing neighborhoods in Idaho. And none other than that the Boise fire chief wants Ada County commissioners to prioritize public safety over private property. Those in favor of the airstrip argue that the issue is solely about private property rights, but a June 30 wildfire that ripped across the part of the Boise Foothills where a landowner wants to set down his private plane, was a stark reminder that much more is at stake.

The 2,500-acre blaze, sparked by fireworks, started near the Wild Horse subdivision and quickly ripped over Table Rock, threatening the Warm Springs Mesa and Harris Ranch subdivisions. Now, fire officials tell Boise Weekly that the Wild Horse subdivision, where pilot Dean Hilde wants to build an airstrip, has little to no fire protection of its own.

Boise Fire Chief Dennis Doan said the subdivision's so-called "Sunset Fire Protection District" has no equipment, no resources and is barely worth the paper it's written on.

"It's a sham, a total sham," said Doan. "The Ada County commissioners may know that the Sunset Fire District exists but it has zero resources. And I'm going to tell them that on July 27."

That's the day Ada County commissioners will gavel in a special hearing to consider an appeal to the county planning and zoning commission's earlier approval of the airstrip. Environmentalists said they're adamantly opposed to the airstrip because it—literally—flies in the face of foothills protection, particularly when it comes to wildlife. Boise City Hall has also expressed opposition.

"Virtually every city department that would be impacted oppose [the airstrip] as unsafe or significantly out of step with the values under which we manage the foothills," said Mayor Dave Bieter.

Doan said his department's concern with fire protection—or lack thereof—in the Wild Horse subdivision dates back to his predecessor, former BFD Chief Renn Ross, who urged the subdivision's original developers to widen roads to accommodate fire engines, build a separate entrance and exit to the subdivision, and, most important, ensure adequate water supplies for firefighting.

"But the Wild Horse developers said 'No, no and no,'" said Doan, who was a fire station commander at the time the subdivision was developed. "Ada County still approved the Wild Horse subdivision. That's certainly their prerogative because it's just outside the city limits."

On Nov. 4, 2007, then-Chief Ross' fears came true when wildfire broke out in Wild Horse.

"And we had all the problems that we were afraid of: We had to shuttle water in and the roads weren't wide enough," said Doan.

Wild Horse is outside the city limits, so the fire department sent the subdivision a bill for $15,000 for saving their homes.

"And guess what? They refused to pay us," said Doan, who had become chief by the time of Wild Horse's refusal to pay the bill."Quite frankly, I felt bad for new homeowners who came in to that subdivision, built homes and couldn't get insurance without fire protection. So, I met with them and said we could work out a deal if they would at least put in a water supply for firefighting and install sprinklers in their homes. But they said, 'No' again. We finally said we couldn't provide them fire protection with Boise footing the bill."

Undeterred, Wild Horse homeowners still chose not to contract with any outside fire agency and, instead, elected to create the Sunset Fire Protection District, which Ada County commissioners adopted in November 2010.

"But it's a sham," Doan repeated. "Ada County commissioners need to know that it's a sham. And the Boise Fire Department has go to on record to say, 'We can't respond if there's a fire.' Time after time, they said, 'No, no and no.' But then they say, 'Help me, help me, help me.' It's not fair and it's not right."

Being Neighborly

Just before Ada County P&Z commissioners gave their approval to the airstrip at a May 5 public hearing, they listened to an impressive presentation supporting the proposal from Dean Hilde and plenty of his friends, fellow pilots and family members. Public testimony was 2-1 in favor of the airstrip at the hearing.

"I just want to land my airplane in my horse pasture," said Hilde, the first of two dozen speakers in favor of the airstrip. "I'm not building an airport; no pavement, lights or control tower."

Hilde argued that his own airstrip would reduce significant time spent driving his vehicle to the Boise Airport. A check of Google maps estimates a car ride between his property and the Boise Airport to be about 30 minutes.

When asked about his airstrip's impact to wildlife, Hilde said he understood "elk and deer may become an issue at times," but quickly added, "wildlife is always welcome on my property."

Hilde's supporters spent the better part of the evening telling P&Z commissioners the airstrip was a good thing:

"I don't think it poses a threat to wildlife," said Stefon Miroff.

"The airstrip would be an added benefit to the neighborhood," said Doug Bates.

"The airstrip will be helpful to retain pilots in the area," said James Howard.

"The airstrip will help preserve the land and limit homebuilding," said Tyley Nelson.

"I'm not aware of any negative comments," said Mike Stock, president of the homeowners association.

"I don't actually hear the plane land in our backyard," said Hilde's wife, Christy.

A few who testified with nice things to say about the airstrip also directed some nasty comments toward Boise City Hall. For example, homeowner/developer Gary Campbell told P&Z commissioners that Boise city officials "had their facts wrong" and "do not have merit."

Dean Briggs, president and CEO of the engineering company working on the proposed airstrip, said a city planner had "lied by not giving any notice" of an April 19 Boise City Council meeting that included discussion of the proposed airstrip. But every major media outlet in Boise picked up on the story after the meeting, making controversy around the airstrip Boise's most buzzed-about news story for the next two weeks.

The 2,500-acre Table Rock fire, sparked in the Wild Horse subdivision, ripped down the Boise Foothills toward the Warm Springs Mesa and Harris Ranch subdivisions. - BOISE FIRE DEPARTMENT
  • Boise Fire Department
  • The 2,500-acre Table Rock fire, sparked in the Wild Horse subdivision, ripped down the Boise Foothills toward the Warm Springs Mesa and Harris Ranch subdivisions.

Big News

Criticizing what he called the "audacity" of the proposal, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter said he couldn't support any recommendation to develop an airstrip in the foothills. Councilwoman Maryanne Jordan said, "I can't think of a more dangerous or disruptive use of the foothills." Councilman TJ Thomson, who is a current candidate for Ada County commissioner, said, "I'm open to a lot of ideas, but never do I recall this much opposition from our departments."

The airstrip controversy took a bizarre turn in late April, when BW learned Hilde had been landing his plane in the foothills without anyone's permission. "We informed him that he would need to apply for a permit," said Ada County Public Information Officer Kate McGwire. "Once he was told that he had to get that permit, he stopped using the land as an airstrip."

Within the next two weeks, Hilde launched a mini-charm offensive, granting exclusive interviews to Boise television stations, insisting the Boise City Council "really didn't give me a fair shot" and claimimng city staff was "uninformed."

Bieter himself reached out to Hilde, via email, reminding him that "your agent was aware" of the item being discussed April 19 before the City Council.

Ultimately, the Ada County Planning and Zoning Commission, on May 6, gave Hilde the news he was waiting for: the airstrip was a fine idea for his private foothills property. Officials at Boise City Hall were incredulous and quickly indicated that they would file an appeal.

"This is completely out of touch with our community," said Thomson.

"I think Ada County needs to be aware of the overwhelming citizen support of the most recent foothills Levy," said Jordan.

The November 2015 passage of the Boise Open Space Levy was a stunner, said election officials, especially in the turnout of voters.

"I must tell you, I still can't totally wrap my head around it," Ada County Chief Deputy Clerk Phil McGrane said at the time. "The turnout in Ada County was remarkable. I can't think of anything quite like this for a city election and I've been here since 2005."

In Boise, some key districts reported turnouts of more than 40 percent of registered voters and nearly every precinct recorded overwhelming support to collect $10 million over two years to help preserve open space around the Boise Foothills.

Such a significant statement from voters should be a compelling reason to reject a proposed airstrip in the foothills, say environmental activitists.

The Environmental/ Wildlife Debate

"The Open Space Levy and opposition to this proposed airstrip? That's where the dots connect for Conservation Voters for Idaho," said CVI Executive Director Courtney Washburn.

Washburn spends her days reading political tea leaves, and her organization has had tangible success in providing its political muscle and financial backing to candidates and issues across Idaho.

"Our main concerns are not only the millions of invested taxpayer dollars, but the constant, overwhelming support to protect the Boise Foothills," she said. "The public has wildlife concerns and certainly fire concerns, but I really think the overarching issue for our organization is a public trust of protecting space for future generations."

John Caywood, veteran of the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Forest Service and current vice president of the Ada County Fish and Game League, looked at a map of the Boise Foothills, circled the area where the private airstrip is being proposed and shook his head.

"It's right next to a Wildlife Management Area where millions of dollars have been invested since the 1940s. It's a very special area. That's where big game come from as far away as the Sawtooth Valley in the winter," said Caywood. "What concerns me is that this airstrip may be the pimple on a much bigger issue. What happens when the next person wants to do something different in the foothills? We need to ask ourselves, 'What's really OK?' Seriously. Ada County really thinks this is OK when so many voters have sent a message to do everything we can to protect the foothills?"

Angela Rossmann, a 30-year homeowner in the Boise Heights neighborhood, said the best thing Ada County commissioners could do is read their own annual report.

"Here it is," she said, pointing to the county's most recent report, published in October 2015. "It talks about how Ada County is nationally recognized for quality of life and natural surroundings. Isn't it their responsibility to ensure that?"

Caywood and Rossmann filed their own appeal, hoping to convince Ada County commissioners to overturn approval for the airstrip. In their appeal, Caywood and Rossmann wrote Ada County P&Z commissioners "misinterpreted land use policy in the underestimation of wildfires potential destruction."

That, said Doan, comes back to his strongest argument.

"It's critical that they're reminded of the history of fire and the Wild Horse subdivision," he said.

Another page of that history was burned into Doan's memory June 30, when wildfire once more threatened the Wild Horse subdivision and everything around it.