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North Idaho rep wants cities to back off design review rules

BOISE – City design review rules would all become voluntary, under legislation being pushed by a North Idaho lawmaker, and developers in Idaho couldn’t be told to make structural changes in buildings they’re proposing just for esthetic reasons.

“We’ve got to allow participants in a market to act like a market, to reflect choice,” Rep. Ed Morse, R-Hayden, told the House Local Government Committee on Tuesday. His comments followed more than two hours of testimony both for and against the bill, with cities, local planning officials, architects and others opposing the bill, and business interests including the Idaho Retailers Association backing it.

On a divided voice vote, the panel approved the bill, HB 480, and sent it to the full House for debate. Morse acknowledged after the meeting that both the cities of Hayden and Coeur d’Alene oppose his bill, but said property owners in his district support it.

The measure is the latest version of a concept Morse has been working on for some time, initially spurred by the city of Boise’s design review requirements on a new multi-story state parking garage that’s being built near the state Capitol, in a designated historic district of mostly residential buildings.

Rep. Kathy Sims, R-Coeur d’Alene, thanked Morse for bringing the bill. “I have several commercial buildings in the town that I live in,” said Sims, a car dealer. She said one is more than 40 years old but has had four additions; the other is four years old, and she’s faced “substantial” costs due to city requirements.

“I’ve had to add 643 feet of sidewalk that nobody has ever stepped a foot on – there’s no sidewalk leading to it or leading from it,” Sims said. “I have 20 trees that shade absolutely nothing. I have grassy swales that take up … 20 parking spaces.”

She said, “I think some control and some concern for the property owners and the businesses that may or may not come to your community is critically important.”

Pam Eaton, lobbyist for the Idaho Retailers Association, said, “I think we have to trust businesses, that they want what’s best for their community.”

Larry Benton, lobbyist for the Idaho chapter of the American Institute of Architects, spoke against the bill, saying the existing neighbors’ property rights matter too. “It’s a property rights issue about the people that are already in the neighborhood who have already built a building,” he said.

Opponents of the bill said city design rules protect values that local communities decide are important. “If you take design review away from my city, it would hurt downtown business owners who desire a beautiful and safe environment for their business,” said Brian Billingsley, planning and zoning director for the city of Caldwell.

Morse said, “I think this bill has got really important protections for allowing the market to work. That was our intent. … It’s the same thing as if you’re trying to legislate good art, or anything else that’s highly subjective.”

While making design review requirements voluntary, the bill still would allow cities to impose design requirements in designated historic districts, and for signage, lighting, landscaping and screening. Cities also could still require conditional-use permits for some developments, and the bill allows regulation of surface finishes, though not structures.

It also requires that all requirements be “clear, ascertainable and not based on subjective considerations.”


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