The Newberg City Council's final decision on whether to allow the planned Dutchman Ridge residential development has been put off to at least August at the request of the developer in order to accept additional public testimony.
The June 19 decision came as numerous council members admitted to a series of ex-parte communications about the proposed development, primarily emails in which some discussed how the lack of high density and affordable housing prompted them to vote against the development by denying it's annexation requirement.
"I've been stopped at the grocery store on numerous occasions to talk about Dutchman's Ridge and as quickly as possible I'm trying to close off the discussion," noted Councilor Stephen McKinney. "I've been reminded and am reminding people that these are ex-parte conversations, but hopefully we're going to get this resolved tonight."
The council held a relatively heated public hearing and debate May 15 regarding an application from Newberg-based developer Del Boca Vista to annex three properties totaling about 26 acres into the northwest corner of the city. The annexation of the Dutchman Ridge properties would pave the way for plans to develop the land — near the intersection of North Valley Road and Chehalem Drive — into 107 houses.
Del Boca Vista is also developing a 10-acre, 53-lot subdivision that has been given preliminary city approval. Referred to as Gracie's Landing, the land sits immediately west of the Dutchman Ridge properties.
The council, however, parted with the recommendations of city staff and the planning commission and voted to deny the Dutchman Ridge application in a 5-1 vote, with some of councilors citing a need to include high-density housing in the project. City staff said at the time high-density housing would require the developer to conduct additional studies and may be an expensive and time consuming process.
That vote was a preliminary oral decision that directed staff to rewrite the rationale to support denying the annexation for the council to approve. That was expected to occur at a June 5 meeting, but then staff revealed the ex-parte communications and held open the public hearing to allow further testimony specifically on that.
The ex-parte communications were primarily emails sent to the council either praising or condemning their decision and an email discussion between councilors Scott Essin and Patrick Johnson in which they discussed their rationale for how they voted.
Councilors also reported when they were asked in person by residents or interested parties about the issue.
"None of these conversations that I had will impact my ability to decide on this case, and I'm trying to be open and transparent," Johnson said.
The meeting packet also notes that two unidentified councilors reportedly read the planning commission meeting minutes on this issue, which is considered ex-parte contact.
Developer calls on council to extend hearing
With the city legally required to allow rebuttal of those ex-parte discussions, Del Boca Vista staff and representatives seized on the opportunity to change councilors' minds, arguing that affordable housing is not appropriate for the property in question with little chance for opponents to offer counter arguments.
Michael Robinson, a land-use attorney with the law firm Perkins Coie and representing Del Boca Vista, encouraged the council to extend the public hearing to August for further testimony, noting the decision may have run afoul of some state laws.
"I don't know any client that wants to appeal a decision, but these are important issues and that's another reason that I think it's appropriate for you to consider reopening the public hearing," he said. "I think you ought to invite discussion, not only from us but from folks who might take the opposite view. We should have a full discussion of it."
Marc Willcuts, owner of Del Boca Vista and Willcuts Company Realty, stressed the company's dedication to affordable, "entry-level" housing and cited several such developments the company has undertaken, but noted that even high density housing would not be affordable in this location.
"In the last 10 years we've probably built more entry-level housing than any other builder in town," he said. "I mean we're committed to it, we want our kids to live here, our nieces and nephews to live here, but I feel like Dutchman's Ridge is the wrong place for it."
Councilor Denise Bacon noted that expensive, high density housing also fills a need in the community. Willcuts responded, however, by noting those kinds of proposals tend to draw backlash from neighbors.
Representatives also introduced a developer who planned to submit plans to the city for a new affordable, high-density development in Newberg, but those plans have not yet been made available.
Several opponents urged the council to not continue the public hearing as the ex-parte communications did not contribute any further evidence regarding the annexation.
"I would like to say that the ex-parte communications that (were) presented… appear to have absolutely no impact on the decision that you made," said Lisa Rogers, who opposed the annexation at the May 15 meeting. "Thus, I would say without any actual impact, there should be no need to further any other discussion or open public testimony again."
The council voted 5-1 to continue the public hearing to Aug. 7 to allow further public testimony, with Bacon casting the sole vote against that proposal. In the meantime, City Attorney Truman Stone urged the council to be wary of ex-parte communications until they vote to finally approve a decision with written findings.