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Damascus residents begin exodus process

Only border lands can de-annex, but neighbors waiting in line


by: OUTLOOK FILE PHOTO - Damascus was incorporated in 2004, but many people want to de-annex because the city has no development plan.Hank Brown wants out of Damascus. So do Jim Syring, Bruce Kayser, Jerry Schofield, Trish Voss, Don Hanna, Lowell Patton and many more.

Some landowners had high hopes when the city incorporated in 2004, but now are fed up because Damascus has failed to produce a comprehensive development plan, as required by state law.

Because of that failure, people can't develop their land like they want and they have trouble selling it, so they're caught up in comp plan limbo.

But thanks to the Legislature, they now can opt out — or de-annex — from Damascus, and join another jurisdiction, like Happy Valley to the west or Gresham to the north.

Hank Brown was first in line to submit a de-annexation form to the Damascus City Council, and has a hearing date set for May 1. According to House Bill 4029, residents of the city can make statements at the hearing and the city “shall withdraw the tract from the city by an order or resolution adopted during a work session at, or immediately after, the close of the public hearing.”

Within two days after adopting the resolution to allow de-annexation, according to the bill, the city must then report the change in its boundaries to Metro and the Department of Land Conservation and Development.

If the city fails to adopt a resolution or rejects the de-annexation application, within 30 days, “the withdrawal of the tract is deemed complete.”

In other words, the city doesn't have an option to refuse de-annexation of a parcel.

Mayor Steve Spinnett says that's unconstitutional, and he plans court action.

“It's unconstitutional for the state to do this,” he said, and cited the 1957 case of Schmidt v. the City of Cornelius, where the court ruled that the Legislature “...could not pass a special law amending the charter of the city of Cornelius and excluding territory from its boundaries.”

The case history is very similar to that of Damascus, Spinnett said.

“The whole idea of home rule charter is to give cities autonomy from the dictates of Salem,” he said.

Spinnett said he supported a bill in a session of the Legislature last year that would have allowed people in Damascus to develop their property under Clackamas County development guidelines, but it failed to pass. If it had, it would have given people relief without changing the boundaries of the city, he said.

“What's unconstitutional is changing the boundaries of the city without going through elected officials.”

Spinnett also complained that the rules for de-annexation, as spelled out in the bill, don't allow for how to deal with applicants who don't meet the criteria for de-annexation.

“I just don't think they thought this through,” he said. “That's a big statement because it was passed by the Legislature and the governor signed it, but there are a lot more complexities, with serious infrastructure and taxation issues.”

Spinnett did not say what sort of court action the city planned to take and referred that question to city attorney Tim Ramis, who did not return calls.

But the city will use taxpayer money to launch a court case, said Damascus resident Jim Syring, and that's got people riled up. Syring organized a meeting earlier this month attended by close to 150 residents who support those who want to de-annex, but they must be on the outer boundary of the city.

“The bill allows everyone within a half mile of the border to de-annex and it's like an onion peel effect,” Syring said. “Only those who touch the border can go first, and I have three parcels before me.”

In other words, three other landowners between Syring and the edge of the city must de-annex before he can, but the process to opt out of the city is becoming a grassroots movement.

“Everyone is lined up pretty much,” he said. “In some neighborhoods they're lined up 10 deep waiting on their neighbors, but it's neighbors helping neighbors.”

Syring said he and Jerry Schofield recently went to the homes of several residents to help them with the de-annexation process.

“We helped a number of elderly residents and Jerry went to the county to get maps for people who don't have transportation,” he said. “It's a grassroots movement of neighbors helping neighbors.”

Syring said the Damascus City Council “will not listen to its own people and is using taxpayer money to fight this.”

That's an untenable position for the council to take, he said, and many of his neighbors agree.

“They're using government resources of the people to fight the people,” he said.

Assuming court action by the city doesn't get in the way, once people de-annex from Damascus, they can then apply to other jurisdictions to be annexed, said Michael Walter, economic and development director for the city of Happy Valley. But people who want to be annexed still have to go through the Happy Valley City Council and city staff will have to provide a comprehensive plan for the newly-annexed property.

“You can switch jurisdictions but you're still at ground zero at having to do land use and transportation planning,” he said. “We don't just snap our fingers and say welcome to Happy Valley, here's your zoning. They won't be able to do anything with that land until there's actually a plan.”

Smaller parcels, from 25 to 50 acres, won't be a problem for planners, he said, but if a landowner with a lot of acreage, say 1,000 acres, were to apply, it's a different story.

“Then you've got yourself a project,” Walter said. “It's time and resources and typically that comp plan work is funded by grants.”

Walter said he's had “a fair amount” of inquiries about annexing to Happy Valley, but annexation applications can't take place until the land is de-annexed from Damascus.

He said the Happy Valley City Council is then likely to deal with property owners in groups to speed the process.

“It would still take two to three months to be annexed,” he said. “As for a comp plan, there's a huge time line difference between acreage. We could do 50 acres in less than six months, but 1,000 acres could take at least a year.”

Happy Valley is one of the fastest growing cities in the region, Walter said, with between 250 and 300 building permits issued already this year.

“All kinds of people are looking at developing here,” he said.

The city of Damascus has received 10 applications to de-annex so far, said Todd Logan, communications director. The applications and hearing dates are published on the city's website at www.ci.damascus.or.us.

Before residents can request to de-annex from Damascus, they must first get a letter from the state Department of Land Conservation and Development, confirming that the city has no comp plan, which they include in their de-annexation application.

Carrie McLaren, deputy director of the DLCD, said as of April 11, her office has received and responded to 16 inquiries about de-annexation, which she said plays a “very small role” in the de-annexation process, and is basically a form letter.

“Our piece of paper is something they have to produce for the city,” she said. “We don't look at anything. We don't even look to see if they own property.”




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