State to give up long-vacant governor’s mansion site in foothills, let it become Boise city park

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From left, Reps. Robert Anderst, R-Nampa, and Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, and Sens. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, and Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise, meet Tuesday, May 22, 2018, as the Legislature’s Governor’s Housing Committee. (Betsy Z. Russell / Idaho Press-Tribune)

Idaho has given up on plans to build a new governor’s mansion on 15 acres of east Boise foothills property it’s been sitting on for decades, and will instead turn the land over to the city of Boise for a park.

The site is adjacent to the city’s existing Military Reserve open space park, and like the reserve, will have trails and natural open areas.

“It will be managed just like the Military Reserve open space property,” said Sara Arkle, foothills and open space superintendent for the Boise Department of Parks and Recreation.

People already are using trails on the property to connect to trails in the Military Reserve, Arkle said. That use will continue, though some trails could be relocated in the future.

Idaho’s last official governor’s residence was the landmark north Boise hilltop mansion donated to the state by the family of the late J.R. Simplot, but no Idaho governor ever lived there. First, it needed extensive renovations; then, Gov. Butch Otter declined to live in his ex-father-in-law’s home. As maintenance costs soared for the home’s extensive lawns, the state gave it back to the Simplot family in 2013. In 2016, the home was demolished.

The state has been paying Otter a $4,500 per month housing stipend since it returned the home to the Simplots; he lives at his own ranch in Star.

The Governor’s Housing Committee, a panel of legislators charged with overseeing Idaho’s provisions for an official residence for its governor, voted unanimously on Tuesday to turn the east Boise property, off Horizon Drive, over to the city for management. Deed restrictions placed on the property when the state received it from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in 1981 require it to be used only for a governor’s residence or for a public park.

The legislative panel considered transferring title for the land straight to the city, but that process is complicated by a number of encroachments around the edges of the 15 acres from landscaping, fences, decks and other items put in over the years by a half-dozen neighbors. While that longer-term issue is addressed, the legislators decided to sign a licensing agreement for the city to manage the property as a park.

“Licensing gives us some time, but still maintains the public purposes of the property,” Arkle told the lawmakers.

Idaho is one of just six states with no governor’s mansion. Since the state acquired the property, various plans have been drawn up to build a mansion there, complete with a view of the nearby state Capitol. But they’ve proven unpopular and never have gone forward.

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, chairman of the legislative panel, said, “We’ve had discussions with current governors, past governors — we haven’t talked to any future governors yet.” But the consensus over the years, he said, has been that the site isn’t the right spot to build a new million-dollar mansion for Idaho’s governor. “The consensus was to go ahead with a park,” he said.

Neighbors along Horizon Drive are interested in maintaining their access to Military Reserve trails through the property, and the city shares that interest.

Rep. Robert Anderst, R-Nampa, moved to approve the licensing agreement with the city, and his motion passed unanimously, with Winder, Sen. Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise, and Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, all voting in favor.

The lawmakers also requested the state Department of Administration to contact the property owners involved in the encroachments and let them know those need to be cleared up before the property can be permanently donated to the city.

In addition to the 15-acre property, the state also owns a single lot on Horizon Drive that was donated to the state to serve as access to the 15 acres. The panel discussed possibilities for that lot including selling it for a possible new private home, while maintaining an easement through it for public trail access.

That issue is complicated by a recent construction project by Suez, the local water company, that installed a retaining wall and two large, black pipe structures, which are water pressure vents, right in the center of the street frontage of the lot.

A Suez representative said the retaining wall could possibly be removed if the lot were re-graded, but the vent pipes need to stay. They were constructed in the Ada County Highway District road right-of-way in front of the lot.

Mary Glen, a neighbor who lives across the street, told the lawmakers that the neighbors favor preserving the lot as an undeveloped trailhead. She said it’s already used by many trail walkers, including employees from the nearby federal building and downtown workers heading out for a hike on their lunch break, as well as neighborhood residents. “Right now it is a semi-hidden little gem,” she said.

The committee voted to seek an appraisal on the lot before deciding how to proceed on it.

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