This Property Was Condemned

Idaho land use lawyer JoAnn Butler talks sprawl, zoning and seeing the future

Photo by: Joshua Roper

Published in 2014 Mountain States Super Lawyers magazine

By Emily White on June 11, 2014


Q: Can you talk a little about the history of zoning law?

A: It started in New York City in the early 20th century. High rises and tenements had been built so close together that there was very little light, very little air that could circulate between the buildings. Fire could spread easily. So when you talk about zoning, you talk about protecting the public health, safety and welfare. That’s really the whole background behind zoning. It was to develop a regulatory system that would allow for things like more light, more air, better building codes, better fire access for vehicles.


Q: When do you get into court battles?

A: Very little winds up in court, to tell you the truth.

Clients put the money, effort and time up front; they involve planners in the community ahead of time. They say, “This is what we’re thinking,” and they actually build in people’s comments. During the public hearing process, of course, people will give you their opinions. That’s where you have your battles—in the public hearing process, before the planning and zoning commission and the city council.

Traffic is always an issue. It’s always, “We don’t want to turn this two-lane road into a three-lane road.” Some people believe that maybe if we stop all development we won’t have to change the roads. For other people, it’s, “How do we work with developers in their municipalities to channel traffic? Do we send them away from existing residential areas towards more state highways?”

We also have a lot of folks that move to Idaho from other communities, especially Southern California. For many of them it’s, “I moved to get away from that. I don’t want anything happening here that reminds me of that.”


Q: You mentioned before that you talk on a lot of panels.

A: Yes. Typically [on these panels] we’ll be talking about planning and zoning—either projects or new and novel techniques that are used by planners and municipalities. Parking regulations. New sustainable cities.


Q: Would you say you’re an environmentalist?

A: Yes. We try to join land use and environmental issues. It’s tied together. [Often] environmental lawyers deal with regulatory issues like how to put up a wastewater treatment plant. I don’t deal with those kind of regulations, but I do deal with environmental issues as they get more technical.

Our firm tends to represent land owners and developers—we also occasionally represent municipalities—and my clients are dealing with large-scale development. So we often deal with habitat mitigation plans.


Q: What does habitat mitigation involve?

A: Typically habitat mitigation is: If you’re in a developing area and there might be an endangered species in the area. Currently, we don’t have a lot of endangered animal species but we do have some endangered plants, so what we may do is create plant preserves.


Q: We?

A: I’ll be one of a team. For instance, right now I’m working on one of the largest mixed-use developments in Idaho. It’s a development called Spring Valley in the foothills near Boise. It’s about 10,000 acres. It’s mixed use: it’s residential, it’s commercial, it’s 60 percent open space.

[On the team] there’s me, but there’s also the developer, civil engineers, environmental engineers, wastewater engineers and the land planners. We also work with the municipalities.


Q: How does the issue of sprawl affect your practice?

A: Well, I originally practiced in Chicago. Chicago is huge but it’s also densely developed. People don’t think of Chicago per se as being an example of sprawl, [but it is]. 

The Boise metro area has grown quite a bit—I’ve been here since ‘89 and it has grown a lot. That growth for many people has been viewed as sprawl.

We’re a little bipolar [in Idaho], in the sense that it’s still a pretty rural state. Large vehicles are the norm. Large lots. I think the planners had a difficult time trying to convince people and developers to become more sustainable by having smaller lots, less pipe in the ground, because people like their wide open spaces.

It’s hard. The community is in transition. We have definitely gone through some growing pains as a community over the last 25 years. Personally, I think it’s all good because I think it’s allowed us to bring over more culture. [Boise is] a great cultural venue. It’s a great sporting venue. Particularly outdoor sports.

On the other hand, if you’re doing anything at the edge of the community, many people would consider it to be sprawl. I’m working on one of the largest developments in the state. It’s in the city of Eagle, which is right next door to Boise. It’s a well-planned community. It’s well-contained. A lot of open space but smaller lots, more sustainable. But there’s definitely some people who would think, “Well, that’s sprawl.”

As a community, I think we’re trying to do a lot with job creation and bringing in businesses, partly because we’ve got an ever-growing population and educated kids that sometimes can’t find work here and they move away. My daughter is an animator and she has moved to Portland. I don’t think she will be moving back.


Q: How did you end up in Boise?

A: Serendipity. I lived and practiced in Chicago, but I had a friend in Idaho and we used to come out here and go skiing. I came out to visit, took a leave from my place in Chicago and wound up staying. The West was for me.

I started in a firm with about 30 attorneys and then started my own firm in the early ’90s, along with my partner, Mike Spink. Now there are five partners.

Before law school I got a master’s degree in geography. So my background pretty much has been in urban geography, social geography. After law school, I worked for the American Planning Association.


Q: Tell me about a typical day

A: A typical day will be fielding a lot of phone calls.

This morning I was making sure that the legal descriptions on a piece of property my client is purchasing, to develop, that the engineers had carved out the road rights-of-way so that it was clear what property we were buying.

And I was working with the public works director and the city attorney on a development agreement that basically lays out the public utilities we’re going to be building for the city.


Q: So you’re parsing the language, the details of these developments?

A: Yes. We might identify the length of the sewer pipe. It kind of goes from the sublime to the ridiculous. We had an immigrant from a Middle Eastern country that has asked us to help him with a conditional use permit for a Hookah bar because his goal is to share Arab culture with his new home, which is, of all places, Boise, Idaho.

Land use attorneys [also] have to do hearings at night because the council of signing and zoning is at night, and that’s so people that are working can show up and speak.

The other thing I was doing today was working on a location for a charter school. We had an old, enclosed mall that never worked for retail. The school is called Sage International Charter School, and we just found out this morning that we got the permit. We just waited to see if anybody would appeal it. Nobody did.


Q: So you’re repurposing wasted space.

A: Exactly. I think the best thing for me as a practitioner is, I’ll drive down that street and think, “OK, that school will be up and running next year.”


Q: You can see the future.

A: Yes. The built environment. 


This interview was edited and condensed.

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JoAnn C. Butler

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