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Growing Pains: What Rapid Growth Means For The Future Of The Treasure Valley

Darin Oswald
Idaho Statesman
Aerial shot of a subdivision development in Meridian.


The Treasure Valley is a popular place to live these days. With a relatively low cost of living, access to recreation in Idaho’s great outdoors and a metro with new food, arts and entertainment options every year— it’s no surprise why folks are flocking to the region. But while the population grew by 21.5% since 2010, pitched arguments about how to manage growth have played out in elections, at public meetings and in neighborhood Facebook groups in recent years. So what's the path forward?


Don Day with BoiseDev covers growth and development for a living and joins Idaho Matters to share his expertise. As a born and raised Treasure Valley resident, he helps us wade through the complexities of trying to get two counties, several cities, at least one state agency and a handful of planning departments on the same page.

This interview is part of our new series called "Growing Pains." Over the next week or so, we'll explore stories and issues surrounding the Treasure Valley's rapid growth and increasing unafforability. Subscribe to our podcast to hear every interview, and download the Boise State Public Radio app to send us a voice message using our Talk To Us feature.

Support for "Growing Pains" comes from Broadcast Society members Jennifer Dickey and Andy Huang.  Member support is what makes these interviews possible. Support this coverage here.

Read the full transcript here:

GEMMA GAUDETTE: You're listening to Idaho Matters, I'm Gemma Gaudette. The Treasure Valley is a popular place to live these days with a relatively low cost of living, access to recreation and Idaho's outdoors and a metro area with new food, arts and entertainment options every year. It's really no surprise, right?

However, here's the flip side. Homes are unaffordable for so many. Cars are filling roadways in areas where traffic is a relatively new phenomenon. And the simmering tensions between newcomers and folks who have lived here for decades often spill over in neighborhood Facebook groups and at city and county meetings. Here on Idaho Matters, we're going to spend the next week exploring some of these themes in a series we're calling Growing Pains. Now to give us a kind of Growth 101 survey course, because we've invited someone who follows this for a living. He's a regular on our show. Don Day is a journalist and the founder of BoiseDev.com. Hey, Don, good to have you with us today.

DON DAY: I think growth one on one is all I'm qualified for. So this is the right thing for me.

GAUDETTE: I give you more credit than that! But thanks. 

DAY: We're good! 

GAUDETTE: So we've also asked you, our listeners, to participate in the conversation. And we did hear from one woman named Nikki who left us this message using our new Boise State Public Radio App.

LISTENER AUDIO: The rapid growth of Idaho has really been a double edged sword for our family. On the one hand, it has helped my husband stay employed and busy at work. But on the other hand, we were priced out of the rental market and forced to purchase a home before we were really ready. And now we're afraid we're simply going to be taxed out of our home and won't be able to afford to live or work in Idaho.

GAUDETTE: I want to thank Nikki for sharing that perspective. Now, we will talk about affordability next on the program. So if you would like to send us a message, the best way to do that is by downloading the Boise State Public Radio App, click on the menu button at the top left to use our "Talk to Us" feature and then leave us a voicemail.

All right. So, Don, I want to start off by hearing your perspective on growth. I mean, you were born and raised in the Treasure Valley, and you now cover growth for a living. So especially for our listeners who did not grow up here. What was it like growing up and how would you characterize the changes that we've seen recently?

DAY: Well, I think your listener, Nikki, nailed it and she did it very succinctly, the problems that we're having right now are incomes are not rising quickly enough, but housing prices and the rental market are zooming. And you mentioned in your windup by talking about a lot of newcomers coming here. And as you mentioned, I've lived here in Boise, born here, and my family's been here a long time. I lived in Seattle for about a year in 2005, and I lived in California for about a year in 2017. And those experiences really helped me understand why folks want to come to Idaho, it's unspoiled, lots of open spaces, it's clean and friendly and it's very attractive. And if you live in lots of areas in California where there's a lot of nice things there and the ocean is sure a benefit, but the housing market has just gone crazy. We talk about housing prices in the Boise Valley, but it's nothing compared to what it's like in the Silicon Valley area or L.A. or many other spots. And so I think what's changed is growth has always been a factor. I've mentioned on this show before, I was looking for some material at the library in the old archives, the Idaho Statesman in the 1980s, and Tim Woodward, who folks who've been around a while recognize that name, wrote kind of a satirical column about the California invasion. And that was 1985. Well, that still continues and will probably always continue. But what has changed is people are able to leave a lifestyle in California where they may own a home that's seen tremendous appreciation over the last decade, sell that and then afford to pay cash here. That's driving up home prices in the Treasure Valley and is squeezing a lot of people.

GAUDETTE: I want to give some numbers to put this into context, so since 2010, more than 132,000 people have been added to Boise's metro population. That is a 21.5% increase, and it makes us one of the fastest growing areas in the country. So, Don, we know people are coming from California. You mentioned that. But we're also seeing people, a lot of people coming from the Pacific Northwest, places like the Seattle and Portland area. And it goes back to similar reasons as you gave for California. Would you agree with that?

DAY: Yeah. And I mean, I think people are coming from all over to the Boise Valley for all the reasons that anybody who's been here understands. And that's going to continue. And, you know, there was -- there's always going to be some some sentiment about, boy, we really can't let more people in. But of course, that's not something we can stop. The only thing that we really control as citizens is electing leaders who look for good policy that can help us figure out how to grow in a smart way, that's tough. There's no easy path. There's no book that says here's how to grow right. But this is going to continue and it's going to continue to strain a lot of our resources. A lot of things that we've all taken for granted are going to become busier. This year aside, certainly, it's going to continue to be more full. But I'll tell you what, I lived in the Palo Alto area, like I mentioned, for 10 months. And it kind of makes me laugh when people here complain about traffic. Yeah, the traffic is worse than it used to be here, and I'm empathetic to that. But it's nothing like the 405 freeway in California. Not even, I mean, it's not like, oh, it's a little different. It's very different here.

GAUDETTE: It's so different.  

DAY: It will be for some time. That doesn't mean that there aren't growing pains and challenges. And getting ahead of those is very difficult.

GAUDETTE: I get angry every single time I drive in California. I mean, I just...

DAY: Oh, yeah. Me too. Right.

GAUDETTE: I mean, when you've got six or seven lanes of interstate traffic going each way, it's a lot.

So Don, you've talked about this on the show before and you call this 'invisible borders' in the Valley. Can you explain if people haven't heard that term, what you mean by that exactly. And why it's important to try to understand this?

DAY: Yeah, if people haven't heard the term I don't blame them, because I think I just made it up. It essentially is -- and this is something, going back to your earlier question about what it used to be like here growing up. It used to be a long drive to Meridian from from our home in Boise. You have to drive through the country and and see a lot of pastures. Now, there is no border between Boise and Meridian in any real physical sense. You can't tell when you've left Boise and entered Meridian. The only dividing line is a political boundary. And what that can mean at times is challenges between different philosophies to growth. Because Meridian has a set of elected leaders. Eagle has one, Boise has one, Nampa, Caldwell, we're all growing into one kind of large metropolitan area. And whereas once upon a time, if Boise and Meridian didn't see eye to eye on growth, it didn't really matter because they didn't touch, so to speak. Now they do. 

And when you throw into the mix things like the Ada County Highway District or the Idaho Transportation Department, which controls some of the more major roads and the Idaho legislature, you get a lot of different philosophies about how things can grow. And that could cause problems, because if Eagle thinks, for instance, that they shouldn't have any more apartment complexes and only have single family houses that can cause problems all over the valley because we're in a severe housing shortage. And that's not to say that their approach is is wrong. It's just different. And so everybody having a little bit of a different idea can create real problems because gridlock can grow, the housing shortage can grow. And how to figure out our way through this is tough when leaders don't see eye to eye.

GAUDETTE: You know, it's interesting when you talk about it used to be like a long way to go from Boise to Meridian. When I moved here, my job was in Nampa and I lived in Boise. And I thought it took forever, but I could get there in twenty minutes. Right. You can't do that anymore. And then when I moved here in 1999, the only business on Eagle Road was Blue Cross of Idaho. My husband, who was born and raised or as well likes to tell me that he remembers when it was a two lane road enough and it was the country.

DAY: Yeah, we've talked about this on the show before, I remember as a kid, we would go to a store called Club Wholesale, which is kind of like a Costco predecessor. And the building is still there. It's part of the Scentsy campus now. And it used to just seem like the longest trip. And we lived in West Boise at the time, so it really wasn't that far. Now, Eagle Road is like the center of things. And in fact, we've seen this. It used to be once upon a time in the late 80s and early 90s that the busiest intersection in the state was Fairview and Cole. So you can kind of picture Fairview and Cole. There's an Albertsons there. There's an Axiom gym, that's not the case anymore. The busiest intersection now has moved westward to Eagle and Fairview. And I wouldn't be entirely surprised if we don't see that "busiest intersection" start to shift further west as the new kind of freeway-like corridor goes in along Ten Mile and we see more growth in the center of the valley. And in fact, I talked to a lot of people involved in growth and development and they are all putting their bets on that Ten Mile corridor because it's the center. It's the center of the valley, because the valley now really is defined maybe from Caldwell to Boise.

But before too long, I think you're going to think of this Boise metro area as stretching from Ontario to Mountain Home. We're going to start to see, as we've seen, a lot of growth to the west. We're going to start to see some to the east as well. And things are just going to keep going. And this isn't going to slow down. We're going to grow south. There's going to be more homes in the foothills. People constantly in our BoiseDev Facebook group, I hear two themes. One is why can't we have more affordable housing and why do we have so many apartment complexes? Those things tie together. And I know BoiseDev's Margaret Carmel will be on Idaho Matters tomorrow talking about some of those things. It's just it's all a function of how do we get enough housing units to have places for people to live? A big stat -- and I'm surprised I didn't mention earlier -- a huge stat this month, the median price of a home in Ada County broke $400,000. 

GAUDETTE: Don, that's shocking. That's shocking. 

DAY: It's shocking! I'm actually live from my parents' house this morning, and I don't know what they paid for for this house in the 90s, but I would guess it was $130K, my mom might be able to nod. It's a house on the Boise bench. She just give me a thumbs down so I might be off. But you know, it is appreciated, like every house has, a ton, and $400,000 for the median price is crazy because most of the houses are actually priced above that and it's tough for folks like Nikki who you laid out at the beginning of the segment.

GAUDETTE: If you're just joining us, we're talking with journalist Don Day of BoiseDev, who's helping us kick off our series on Treasure Valley growth and affordability. Don, two things I want to make sure we talk about before I let you go. You mentioned ACHD. Can we talk about this, these political and jurisdictional boundaries and how that makes decisions around growth complicated? And I want to talk about ACHD, the Ada County Highway District, because this is an anomaly within any large city.

DAY: It is. Ada County Highway District is really the only jurisdiction of its kind. It was voted in in the 1970s, really as a way to sort of check the growth of Boise in the county. Obviously things have changed a lot since then, and I think you set it up well as saying it's complicated. ACHD gets a lot of heat, people express a lot of negative opinions about it and I get it. But sometimes I like to flip it over and say, okay, well, we have a countywide highway district and then a bunch of cities that have individual jurisdictions within the county and all the cities will say, well, we should control our on roads. Former Mayor Bieter was famous for this, for saying Boise should control its own roads, and the only mayor in the country that doesn't control my roads, right.

Well, what if you flip the paradigm and you say, well, why don't we have countywide government where everything is aligned and this is that invisible border thing. That won't ever happen and won't ever go away either. And so it goes back to this thing of leaders trying to figure out how to get alignment on things. And the highway district has made, I think, progress in recent years of trying to figure out how to navigate the political waters a little bit more carefully and help the leaders in each city accomplish what they want. It's never going to be perfect and it's tough because ITD controls Eagle Road. So it's another agency that controls a major road in the area right now. They also control Broadway and Front and Myrtle. And so you have all these things that do together. And it's a very complicated picture. 

GAUDETTE: And especially when you just would make an assumption that if it's a street in a city that a city would control it, and that is not necessarily the case. The other thing I want to talk about with you before I let you go is land use. And I think you briefly mentioned this. You write a lot of articles on BoiseDev about land use. So could you define it for us and give us an example as to why this matters so much?

DAY: Boy, you gave me the hardest question last! It's really just how the different pieces of ground in our town and our valley are used. And so, you know, is it a park? Is a housing? Is it commercial? Land use is the purview of the cities. The cities have what's called zoning authority, which means they can decide in a general sense what's going to happen with land. Developers and landowners can ask for exemptions and all sorts of things. The tricky part about land use is the cities control the land, but the Highway District controls the roads. And in our vehicle driven society, roads kind of drive land use. And that's where you get a lot of this friction because the cities have certain ideas around Boise, for instance.

Boise has seen a trend towards density. The political leadership has decided that having more homes and more apartments closer together is the best way to move forward. And you can do that some with existing infrastructure, but it can also be tricky. Meridian, for the most part, has taken a less dense approach, although they're their latest comprehensive plan also moves towards density. And then Eagle, for instance, they've basically said no more apartments. We're all going to be single family homes. They're all under the umbrella of a ACHD and so they all have to try and figure out how to work together and accomplish these goals that are different depending on the areas. Did that get you the answer you were looking for.

GAUDETTE: It did, actually. And really quickly, what are you paying attention to in other parts of the Valley? And I ask that because I think we focus so much on Boise, so much on Ada County, frankly. But, look at Canyon County, look at Caldwell, Nampa and what's going on there. I mean, I know it's BoiseDev, but are you looking at those parts of the valley as well?

DAY: Yeah. And, you know, I was talking with with your producer, Frankie Barnhill, before this. I know your series is specifically focused on the Treasure Valley, but growth is causing growing pains in McCall. It's causing growing pains in Sun Valley. It's causing growing pains in Caldwell and Nampa and even over the border in Ontario. When you ask what I'm watching, it's that Central Valley corridor when it's going to get built. This is a sort of a freeway that would essentially connect I-84 to Emmet and pieces of it are already built. They've got more money out earmarked for it. That's going to have major ramifications for the growth pattern of the valley and how things move forward in the future. And so what goes along that is big.

But then you've got these downtowns, you've got Nampa's downtown, which is really starting to come alive. And Indian Creek Plaza in Caldwell is just a heck of a story that I don't think can be told enough. So there's a lot going on and we'll continue covering it. Yeah, we're called BoiseDev, but we cover more broadly than that. When you're naming a business, be careful. That's my only advice to potential business owners. But, yeah, it's an interesting time.

And the last thing I'll say here is that your listeners might think, well, is COVID changing things? I think COVID is actually going to continue to accelerate growth here. People are maybe working for a Facebook or a Google or an Oracle in California, companies that have said, hey, you know what, you don't need to work in our office anymore. You can work anywhere. Well, if your job, your economic interest is no longer based in a place like California, it's a big reason to move. So Boise, Reno, Vegas, Austin, Missoula, Kalispell, all these cities that are a flight or two from California and Seattle and these major corridors are going to become more and more attractive. And so people who are frustrated by the growth are going to have to figure out how to cope because it's going to continue.

GAUDETTE: And really quick, you are actually going to be publishing a voter guide for the first time this year. So when when can people expect that?

DAY: Yeah, so BoiseDev's Margaret Carmel is working on profiles of all the races, we're hoping to get that out here the next couple of weeks because we know people are going to be early voting this year. And then I'm going to be hosting an ACHD candidate forum on October 7th in the evening with all the candidates for the races. And that same day, BoiseDev will host an event called The Future of Downtown Boise. It'll be live online. So October 7th can be a busy day for BoiseDev, but that's coming up.

GAUDETTE: Don, always good to talk with you and get your perspective. Appreciate it.

DAY: Thanks, Gemma.

GAUDETTE: We've been talking with journalist Don Day of BoiseDev about about growth here in the Treasure Valley. Support for our Growing Pains series of conversations comes from Boise State Public Radio Broadcast Society members Jennifer Dickey and Andy Huang.

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Frankie Barnhill was the Senior Producer of Idaho Matters, Boise State Public Radio's daily show and podcast.