By editorial board • 

Yes, we feel your pain; but it was preordained

Who says history doesn’t repeat itself?
On March 10, the McMinnville City Council approved the 280-unit Baker Creek North subdivision despite plenty of opposition.


As the second phase in a large development the same applicant has underway next door on McMinnville’s fast-growing west side, it drew fire for threatening to overtax sewer, water, road and school systems, removing valuable farmland from production, imposing questionably high densities, encroaching on fragile wetlands and eliminating prized open spaces and tree cover.


However, the city’s legal and land use advisers stated the land in question had been marked for urban development many years ago, when it was included in the urban growth boundary. They said the site met all legal criteria, so the city’s elected representatives had no legitimate grounds for refusal.


That didn’t stop Councilors Zack Geary and Adam Garvin from lodging dissenting votes as an “I hear you” gesture to opponents. And the lack of unanimity on the measure’s first reading forced the council to vote anew March 24.


But the result was identified. The two nays were noted for the record and the city moved on.
Fast-forward to August and shift the action to Carlton.


If it sounds like you’ve heard it all before, you have. Only the names have changed.


On Aug. 4, the Carlton City Council voted 5-2 to approve the 77-unit second phase of the JR Meadows subdivision. It’s a followup to phase one, approved in December and now underway.


By casting no votes on first reading, Councilors Linda Watkins and Kathy Mahar forced a reconsideration, conducted Sept. 1 with the same result.
The opposition arguments voiced in Carlton were virtually identical to those in McMinnville — and, indeed, to those raised with relentless regularity at local land use hearings everywhere.


So was the counsel provided by legal and planning officials, who essentially advised councilors: Regardless of your personal opinion on this project, the applicant has met the letter of the law and you have no right to stand in his way. This decision was effectively made when the city established its current urban growth boundary; it’s out of your hands at this point.


Not all land use decisions are so preordained. Not by any means.


Often, citizens have a real opportunity to affect the ultimate decision with the testimony they offer in the public hearing process. And councilors have a clear opportunity to make that decision on the basis of the evidence they find most compelling.


However, the hearing process and ensuing council consideration are more show than substance when it comes to some of the most impactful developments a community can face. In such cases, both citizens and decisionmakers feel the frustration.
There is a reason for establishing legal regulations in advance, of course.


Most importantly, it ensures decisions will be made on the basis of established criteria uniformly applied to all. Otherwise, determined opposition would almost inevitably prevail, subjecting a passive majority to the whims of an aroused and self-interested minority. 
The lessons here?


Take great care in establishing criteria that may bind your successors for future decades to come. And be crystal clear with opponents at the outset, lest they harbor unfounded hopes about their ability to ward off unwelcome development in their neghborhood.
In our experience, minimizing surprises serves as a useful guiding policy for elected officials.

Comments

PAO

I've been one of the vocal opponents of the development around Baker Creek and Hill for years. My issue has never been that the area would be developed. My issue is how it was developed and why the citizens were held to the letter of the ordinance but the planning department allowed itself much more flexibility.

One example is that the current apartment complex was allowed provided 10 acres across the street was held as commercial with no residential allowed. Once the apartments were confirmed, the planning department supported the developer's request to modify the ordinance requirements. That 10 acre non-residential commercial parcel is now down to 6.6 acres and it allows residential. But the apartments are still built. Apparently there IS a lot of flexibility in legal interpretation.

There's about 15 acres of unbuildable land in the new development that was offered as a "park." Mac Parks recommended the land not be accepted. But planning thought removing 15 acres from our tax roll and adding maintenance obligations to our Public Works department was a generous offer from the developer.

Then there's the roundabout that was put in because traffic volume in the area is growing. Yet the planning department approved a plastic rail fence between the apartment backyards and the intersection of 2 busy roads. So is the intersection so busy we need a too small roundabout or is the traffic level so low that we don't need to worry about balls and children in the street? It's the only fence a mile in either direction that isn't childproof.

Our council is often told that they have no choice in how they vote. My position is that they don't always have all the information. Why ask the council to rescind an ordinance yet not provide a copy of the complete ordinance to the council so they understand what their vote covers?

So I think there is a lot of flexibility. It depends on what side of the table you sit.

PAO

To add to my initial comment below, I think citizen input can have a major impact. It was citizen testimony that brought the 35-foot height limitation on the apartments to the attention of the planning commission and later the city council. The original Staff Report from the planning department recommended a 65-foot height.

It was also citizen testimony that brought out the "no residential" restriction on the related 10-acre commercial parcel across the street.

I encourage the Carlton opponents to continue to follow the process. The McMinnville council missed the planning department administratively giving the developer a 14% increase in the apartment building height. And despite claims that McMinnville needed all the housing, the owner of the non-apartment portion of Baker Creek South is doing a direct mail campaign to Beaverton trying to attract buyers to our "greater Portland area." I guess McMinnville's need wasn't as large as anticipated, thus we aren't absorbing the 213 houses already built or in process. And now we have 240 houses planned for the Baker Creek North development just starting construction.

Citizens have the opportunity to present information to council members on a continuing basis. For example, I wouldn't expect it to be top of mind for the council that over the past couple of years, they have approved 911 housing units just along the Baker Creek corridor. About half of those units are already built and almost all of the remaining units will be built within two years.

I urge Carlton to learn from our "pain" as I have and stand firm on items that improve liveablity: make sure the housing style fits Carlton and not Portland; ensure that there are adequate parks including equipment and maintenance; and remember that the developer is making a profit at the expense of your quality of life. Take a page from the developer's handbook and don't be shy about your "asks."

PAO

I have 2 corrections to make to my second post:
1. My posts are in chronological order so I should have referred to my post "above" not "below."
2. 280 houses are planned for the Baker Creek North development, not 240 as I typed.