Changes to small parcel zoning in Boise
If you’ve ever wondered how your neighbor is cutting up his property into parcels to build additional buildings on his land, a mini-plot is likely your answer.
This process is a simple part of most zoning laws, including the city of Boise’s, allowing landowners to subdivide land they own into up to four lots without having to go through a longer process of getting subdivision approval. This process, like adjusting a lot line, is reviewed internally by city staff and has historically been a quick way for developers or homeowners looking to add another home to their lots to build larger lots within existing neighborhoods.
There have been 211 small land subdivisions in Boise over the past five years, including 44 in northwest Boise and 60 in the West Bench.
But that process is set to undergo some changes in the city’s new zoning code rewrite. Instead of allowing anyone to subdivide their lot and get approval within 15 days from internal city staff, the new law only allows small parcel subdivisions if the developer agrees to adhere to the city’s affordability requirements so that rent is capped at half the units for those who build. 80% of the area median income or less ($49,000 per year for a single adult) or, if the home is sold, for someone making $87,780.
City planning staff said they made the change to encourage developers to go through the subdivision process when developing these types of lots to ensure there are appropriate amenities, such as trails and trees, included in the project as well as to tie development incentives to affordability requirements.
The change is controversial, as real estate agents and housing advocates say it limits the ability to build smaller homes that can be sold at affordable prices to middle-income buyers, which the city says it wants to create. On the other hand, anti-zoning code rewriting group Reject Boise Upzone said they are encouraged by the move toward subdivisions requiring amenities for infill projects.
“Basically allowing subdivision”
The city of Boise wants to limit small lot subdivisions as a backdoor way to build a subdivision without additional planning.
Property owners have been using the process to subdivide parcels of land one by one to build an entire block of homes, meaning the city is “essentially allowing subdivision,” said Jessica Szilag, the city’s deputy director for comprehensive planning. This was burdening neighborhoods with infill projects that disrupted the neighborhood by not planning amenities, and “it was a problem,” she said.
“There is no capacity (with simple land zoning) because it is not tied to a project to understand what trash pickup and tree and sidewalk requirements will look like,” she said.
The new law does not allow developers to do simple zoning unless they agree to cap the rent on some to meet affordability guidelines.
This is part of the city’s overall approach to rewriting the zoning code, allowing for more density in some areas along major transportation corridors. But if developers want to build four apartment complexes on a piece of land, they must agree to affordability or sustainability requirements to get the density increase.
Developers can still get the same results for subdividing their lots to put more homes on an existing lot for an infill project through the subdivision process, which requires Planning and Zoning Commission approval. These amenities will still be required through the new small lot zoning process, but will be an administrative approval.
“There is still a process through the subdivision to do the same type of projects, and that ensures that we will get the connectivity, trees, and design requirements that we want to see in this type of project,” Szilaj said. “Someone might seriously want to subdivide and build the same type of project, but this gives us a guarantee that those other facilities will be built.”
Does this hinder housing options?
Sheila Smith, a real estate agent with Re/Max Capital City, said this change is causing a definite change in the project one of her clients is working on.
In the Veterans Park neighborhood, James Hanson owned a parcel of land he hoped to subdivide for a four-home development after the demolition of a single-family home that Smith said was “unsalvageable” due to poor restoration. He originally hoped to make four lots on the lot to build smaller homes that could sell for lower prices, but then he discovered changes to the small lot zoning process that required a maximum sales price for a home, and made him change his plans.
Now, he will build three larger homes on more land at the site, which will cost more money. He said the fourth house would have to be sold at a loss, but even if it wasn’t at a loss, the price he would have to sell the house for would still be too high for someone with average income to qualify for a fourth house. Loan to buy themselves. Finding homes priced low enough that low-income people can qualify for them is like threading a needle, Smith said, making affordable homeownership opportunities much more difficult than many people think.
“I love the intent, but it’s a 22 puzzle,” she said. “If you qualify for the program, you won’t qualify for the loan. “I’m going to lose money and it’s going to be very difficult and the number of buyers is going to be very small, so I’m going to have to build 3 bigger, more expensive houses now,” Hanson said. “What I wanted to do, and what the city is up to “To do it is financially impossible.”
And the alternative to partition? Smith said it’s a “cost prohibitive” because of the large difference between the length of time it takes to get administrative approval and a Planning and Zoning Commission hearing. Between the engineering requirements and another layer of approval from the Ada County Highway District, that could add a year to the development process, she said.
Ethan Mansfield works for a local developer, but outside the office a housing advocate who spoke at hearings on rewriting the zoning code agrees. He said these types of developments are not being undertaken by large developers, but by smaller Boise developers who want to create affordable opportunities within neighborhoods for people to live in and making zoning of small lots more difficult will only derail their projects.
“We’re talking about your next door neighbor trying to do nice density,” he said. “What the city has done by rewriting the zoning code is on the one hand they’re saying build more housing, but on the other hand, they’re simultaneously making zoning objectively more expensive and time-consuming, and what that creates is an inherent bias toward rental products.
Minor improvement to Boise Upzone rejection
This change isn’t exactly what the activists who rewrote the anti-zoning law wanted, but it helps their cause.
Dave Kangas, lead organizer with the Reject Boise Upzone and a real estate agent, said he supports the city’s attempt to move developers to go through the zoning process to ensure growth comes with neighborhood amenities.
But he remains concerned about developers being able to build multi-story homes and small apartment buildings within neighborhoods in the new code if developers meet certain requirements and are close enough to high-density transportation corridors.
He also said complaints from developers that the zoning process would be too long and not retain water would still be able to have a smooth process through planning and zoning to build what they want in the city.
“It’s a small improvement, but there are still problems,” he added.