The Hottest Topic in our City and the Treasure Valley. I'm frequently asked how we can slow it down and why denser developments are located in some areas instead of others. Why aren't road expansions and improvements being made? I will discuss more about Transportation below, however, let me mention here that the City has limited influence in public road and highway decisions. That responsibility belongs to the Ada County Highway District and Idaho Transportation Department.
In answering questions about slowing growth, I usually first respond with an explanation about how land use decisions are made and the relationship between the State, the City, and Private Property owners. I have found this is a topic of which many Meridian residents are not aware.
The State of Idaho has upheld private property rights as primary benefits to its citizens. By doing so, it limits the City's ability to "require" private property owners to convert their properties into specific uses i.e. commercial, retail, industrial, or residential. Therefore, in order to plan for future use, the City has created a Comprehensive Plan and Future Land Use Map (FLUM) as a "guide" for how the City would like to develop and has written into its code a limitation on how far removed a property use can be from the Comprehensive plan and FLUM.
Again, the City is limited in its ability to require a property owner to use their property for whatever the city or public deems acceptable. Therefore, when a land use application is before City Council, they must take into account the property owner's desired use as well as the Comprehensive plan, Meridian City Uniform Development code, Zoning laws, and feedback from ACHD, ITD, West Ada School District, Police, Fire Departments, and the Public. Because of these factors, the City is limited in its land use decision-making to three responses: Ask the private property owner to make changes/improvements to their proposed plan, accept the plan as-is, or deny it all together.
So why not stop the growth temporarily? Great Question. Although the solution might seem simple, it really just leads to A LOT more questions. For example, there are areas of the city that really need more services like gas stations, medical care, eating establishments, dry cleaners, etc. If application for adding these services are denied, then those residents must drive farther to reach them, affecting the transportation challenges. An attempt to slow growth also brings up questions regarding housing options and affordability. Meridian's Uniform Development Code requires that the City pursue a variety of housing options for its residents. If the City only approves applications for single family homes, then it's violating its own code. As the cost of living gets higher, it pushes residents to move into less expensive areas, again increasing transportation concerns as they drive from one city to another for employment and services. Can the City make better decisions about the locations of dense developments? For sure! I believe the City can look more critically at the ratios of each housing type and commercial service as well as continue to seek better information from ACHD, ITD, West Ada SD, Police, and Fire. However, remember in the above paragraph, the City cannot require a private property owner establish a dense development in one location or another.
Meridian holds a unique place in the Treasure Valley as the central city through which many residents from Canyon and Ada county travel but do not live. Because of this, and our rapid growth, our roads have begun to experience a lot of congestion. Unfortunately, the City doesn't have control over its roads. That responsibility belongs to ACHD and ITD.
However, there are ways in which the City can help. First, we increase the communication and collaboration with ACHD. As a City Councilperson, I will meet with ACHD Commissioners on a regular basis to discuss solutions about the most challenging congestion issues. Currently, the city only has joint public hearings with ACHD twice a year; I will work towards increasing this to every quarter.
Second, I will regularly meet with members of the City's Economic Development department to discuss opportunities for bringing new businesses and higher wages into Meridian so that residents aren't leaving the city to find employment. I see a huge amount of potential for both residential and commercial growth in our downtown corridor to bring jobs closer to home.
Third, I've already been in discussions with current City Council members about public transportation - what the city is currently doing, what the budget allows, what has been done in the past, and what is planned for the future. There are so many opportunities to improve what we currently have before promoting and funding a large scale bus or light rail system. This includes transportation programs already in use and operated by private entities, increasing ridership on ACHD's Commuterride program, incentive programs offered by private companies to use public transportation, and the already planned increase in Valleyride bus routes from The Village/Kleiner Park to the Ten Mile Interchange.
As a Planning and Zoning Commissioner and active participant in many community events, I have frequently heard concerns about whether City decision-makers are "listening" to the public. Personally, I read every piece of communication sent to the City before each hearing along with the City Council members. However, on a weekly basis, the City receives very little public input, through e-mail, written letters, or in person regarding annexation, zoning, and conditional use permit applications.
Many residents are expressing concerns through print and social media and within their personal spheres, but not to the City directly. I have been and will continue to encourage the public to send in e-mails and attend public hearings so that the decision-makers can address specific concerns regarding land use and growth decisions.
I believe the City has made huge strides in being accessible to citizens through Town Hall Meetings, Social Media, NextDoor, and public events. City staff and elected officials spend countless hours attending these meetings and events in the evenings and weekends to make themselves available to the public.
That being said, I do believe that there are ways the City can improve our public hearing and communication processes.
First, I'd like to see improvements to the City website so that residents can more readily find information on the current applications being considered as well as to make comments on those applications that can be entered into the public record.
Second, I will be investigating the possibility of either recording or taking minutes at the neighborhood meetings so that decision-makers learn more about specific conversations the public is having an applicant.
Third, during City Council meetings, I will be encouraging my fellow Council Members to discuss and deliberate each application at length, as time allows, and to clearly express the reasoning behind each vote.