A simmering, would-be scandal involving College of Western Idaho plans to develop a satellite campus in Boise’s West End appears more interesting than it is in reality.

Detractors allege the CWI Board of Trustees erred in judgement in agreeing to buy a 10-acre parcel of land two miles from the heart of downtown without first obtaining an independent appraisal of the land’s value. Not long after the purchase was announced, board chairwoman Mary Niland told The Idaho Statesman that the decision to proceed without an independent appraisal was a “mistake,” but she insisted the board had not overpaid for the property.

As recently as Wednesday, May 6, Ada County Commissioner David Case weighed in on the subject in a letter advising Niland to cancel the purchase and renegotiate the price only after a current appraisal.

At issue, according to critics, was the parcel’s $8.8 million purchase price, agreed upon by trustees, which, taken at face value, does not square with the county’s 2014 assessed value of $3.6 million. Without an independent appraisal, that seemingly bargain-basement assessment was all the media had to go on.

Bob Rice

Nathaniel Hoffman / TBR
View across the Bob Rice lot to the southwest, toward the Flying Wye.

But as noted in original reports on the subject, Idaho Code dictates CWI was not required to have the land appraised prior to acquisition. And Niland’s right: an independent assessment of the property wouldn’t have mattered as the assessed value of land for tax purposes is a poor proxy for determining the selling price.

Previously home to the Bob Rice Ford dealership, 3150 W. Main was once an outpost on the key artery delivering traffic out of the city core — prior to construction of the “Flying Wye” (Interstate 184). Aging buildings on the property weren’t demolished until mid-2013.

Located just west of the newly created Whitewater Park Boulevard, the former Bob Rice Ford lot is, according to multiple studies, well positioned for future growth, and boasts numerous pluses for a college campus. Close proximity to the Boise River and greenbelt offer multimodal access and aesthetic qualities, while its position squarely within the city’s up-and-coming 30th Street urban renewal zone offers numerous benefits as the area is redeveloped in coming decades. Furthermore, the lot is zoned C-5,  allowing for a broad list of uses as in the central business district. Most of the city’s existing C-5 zone is concentrated in downtown.

A few short years ago the location was also a frontrunner for a nebulous proposal to replace the Boise Hawks’ Memorial Stadium in Garden City, with a more contemporary venue somewhere in downtown Boise.

Bob Rice Stadium plan

Better Boise Coalition
Stadium superimposed on Bob Rice lot from 2011 Better Boise Coalition report (pdf) prepared by DLR Group.

A report commissioned by the Better Boise Coalition in 2011 evaluating proposed sites for the stadium project looked closely at the Bob Rice Ford lot — which sported an asking price at the time of $1.5 million per acre for the 10-acre parcel. The report also stated that the Rice Family Trust wanted more than $10 million for the property.

At the end, the report included a tax assessment sheet noting that the property’s assessed value for that year (2011) was just shy of $3.5 million. Today the valuation has increased only slightly to $3.6 million, according to Ada County Assessor records.

Price sheets for property offered for sale in the Meridian area suggest a similar disconnect between assessed value and perceived market value. Prices range anywhere from $7.00 – $17.50 per square foot for land that not so long ago was used to produce crops.

Take the bare lot at 2954 W. Franklin Road, priced at $6.00 per square foot. The total price for 38 acres, as listed, is $9,931,680. That area of Meridian is much less dense, and the land was until very recently an empty field (and before that, farmland).

The assessed value of that parcel, at $37,400, has little bearing on the nearly $10 million asking price. The current owners of the property likely wouldn’t deign to have assessors charge a property tax bill based on what the property could someday become.

If voters feel strongly that Idaho’s community colleges should be required to go through a more extensive process prior to assembling property for sale or purchase, they should bring that issue to the Idaho Legislature, rather than pontificating on the value of urban real estate, perceived or otherwise.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.

  • Scott Nicholson

    First, let me say, I am thrilled CWI might have a physical location in Boise AND I love the spot on the river next to Boise Water Park. What a wonderful location. Relative to the discussion on the value of that land, we don’t know what it’s worth. We don’t know and neither does the CWI Board of Trustees .That’s a problem.

    Here’s why it’s a problem. This is public money. If a private enterprise wants to spend money with out adequate checks & balances, unless I’m a stockholder, I don’t care. On the other hand, if I am a stockholder and they make a significant acquisition, I expect the company to exercise due diligence. Those company managers have a fiduciary responsibility to carry out their duties with the best interest of the company. In government, – even though it’s hard to tell with all the malfeasance we hear about, believe it or not public officials also have a fiduciary duty.

    As of yet, we really haven’t heard much about how the CWI Board of Trustees exercised due diligence. The only thing I’ve heard about at all when a spokesman for the Board said something to the effect that this parcel seemed reasonable when reviewed in perspective to other properties. What’s he mean by that? Was that on a price per acre review? Did that review include development costs? Is the water table going to be an issue that will increase development costs? What did he mean? I can show you two identical looking parcels with entirely different development costs. So, what does he mean?

    The cost of the project is going to be land acquisition plus development costs. I’d like to know where we are on this. Did they just look at different parcels & compare land costs? You know, that might be a good 1st cut. A better decision could be made based on the whole project cost. I’m assuming / I’m really hoping they have someone on staff or on retainer advising them on ballpark development costs, right? But, at the moment, my confidence is shaken if they can’t even give an economic justification of the land value other than “it seemed about right” (not an actual quote), it’s going to be hard to believe the board exercised their fiduciary responsibilities to protect the taxpayers.

    Now, they could be doing their project cost estimate during their due diligence period. We don’t know, yet. I assume ACHD will only allow them to exit on to 30th St, but maybe they can get a curb cut on Main, but with the bridge and exits just west of this parcel, I have no idea. That should come out during the due diligence period.

    Also, to be fair, there could be some strategic value to this parcel that wouldn’t apply to other parcels. I’m not sure what those would be, but you never know. In the eyes of the board, perhaps they see some strategic value there.

    Now, down to land value. I agree with board chairwoman Mary Niland that they made a mistake. They made a mistake on two counts. The first being they weren’t armed with relevant information. The second being they lost public confidence. We need to know they’re acting in the taxpayers best interests. We’ve seen a ton of similar acts of malfeasance (? – that may be a tad too strong a word in this case, but nonetheless, I’ll use it) under Gov Otter, Teresa Luna, IEN, et al… The board should have known better. Unless the purchase & sale agreement allows them a valid exit should the land not be worth the offered price, the tax payer could be on the hook.

    Does this property have certain positive attributes? I think so. I think that’s a wonderful location for CWI – in concept. It may also have some very negative aspects such as access. If restricted to 30th Street, that’s a negative. I’m not sure what the focus of this campus will be so I’m not able to discuss whether this will be a car-centric facility or not. To think this will be a bike friendly facility is dreaming in my opinion, but maybe to the north end and some parts of Garden City. There is more to Boise than the north end, however. I’m not sure what the C-5 designation will have to do with anything unless they house other tenants. Sure, C-5 is generally considered to be a good designation, but good for a school? How?

    In the discussion on what the family wants for the property & what it is assessed for, those only have a loose relationship to actual value. People want what they want, but just because someone wants a certain price doesn’t mean it’s worth that price. I’m really hoping the county assessor isn’t just at 50% (or less) of actual value. If so, that will be very disappointing, let me say that again….. that will be very disappointing and worthy of an inquiry as to why that is. If they are that much off, we need to shift our attention to include the capability of the county assessor and what in the world is going on over there that they would be that far off? There is no homeowner’s exemption for commercial properties. Is there some secret handshake on getting lower valuations from the county assessor I’m not aware of?. The question should come up questioning why they’re that low on the value – if indeed it turns out this property is worth significantly more than what’s showing up on the tax rolls.

    I assume agricultural land values in production are valued at agricultural values. The land at Eagle Road & Fairview was in agricultural production, but it’s value was much more than for agricultural land. I suspect that was a motivation to keep it in agricultural use right up until the point of sale. That makes sense. The subject land is not agricultural land. The increase in value from agricultural to commercial is not a valid comparable change. I assume the referenced land on Franklin at 10 Mile was in agricultural use & may still be in the window to claim such. But, to be clear, I’m not even sure why that is even interesting as it has no bearing on the land CWI is interested in as during it’s site appraisal (once ever 5 years) it was valued at agricultural values. The CWI land has been in commercial use since I move here in 2001.

    The last thing voters should have to do is request the Idaho Legislature to enact rules that should be exercised by fiduciaries. Should we not have reasonable expectations that political entities exercise fiduciary restraints? Should we require every reasonable activity of a tax payer funded entity be in statute? No.

  • I think Scott laid out the cautionary tale well. I differ on his assessment of access and the beauty of the location. The east – west bike corridor that runs next the river and the site is one of the busiest bike commuter routes in Boise. There are 3 different bike routes that are near the area that run north-south. Whitewater Park is a developed 4 lane arterial that provides access from State Street (which services Eagle, Star and west), as well as both sides of the connector, Fairview and easy access to downtown. The only parcel near downtown that is close to the size is on Main near 28th. It isn’t nearly as well-suited for a campus setting, lacks the traffic infrastructure and the obvious benefits of being near the park and river. By the way, the asking price for that smaller parcel is just under $5 million and its assessed value is – 0 – here’s a link to the Ada County Assessor’s database – http://www.adacountyassessor.org/adamaps/?run=ZoomToParcel&query=parcel%3D%27S1004346703%27&LayerTheme=AerialsOn