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Group hopes to halt sale of city land

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Southwest Portland residents (from left) Jeremy Solomon, Terri Preeg Riggsby and Bill Kielhorn walked though the three-quarter acre city parcel they want preserved last week.For as long as they can remember, neighbors of Woods Memorial Park in Southwest Portland have been able to look out their windows to the sight of the decommissioned Freeman water tank and about three-fourths of an acre of unoccupied greenway near the park.

Now, they say the city of Portland may be selling this land to a developer for demolition and subdivision without exercising due diligence or even offering public notice. But the city begs to

differ.

In June 2010, the Portland City Council passed an ordinance finding that eight properties — including the Freeman Tank — were “no longer needed by the Portland Water Bureau and the public interest would be best served by selling each property at the fair market value.”

Three years later, the sale of a neighbor’s house prompted longtime resident Jeremy Solomon to wonder whether the property containing the Freeman Tank at 8711 S.W. 42nd Ave. ever could be sold as well.

After a series of calls to the bureau, Solomon said he learned that the property was already was being sold. In September 2012, Portland-area custom home builder Renaissance Homes had put $1,000 down for an ultimate sale price of $140,000.

This didn’t sit right with

Solomon.

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - This Portland-owned water tank sits on property along Southwest 42nd Avenue that neighbors dont want sold to a developer.“I thought about it and talked to neighbors. I could tell everyone was alarmed by that,” he said. “People didn’t realize that it had been sold — had been sold, past tense.”

Indignant, Solomon and his neighbors in Southwest Portland’s Ashcreek, Crestwood and Multnomah neighborhoods formed the Woods Park Advocates, a united front against what they felt was a too-hasty sale of the property.

“Did they do an appraisal? Did they do an analysis of the value? We’ve asked for it; we haven’t seen it,” Solomon said. “If they were my Realtor, I’d say, ‘You’re fired; you’ve done a terrible job.’ “

A June 23, 2010 City Council document, “Water Bureau surplus property exhibits,” said the Freeman Tank was appraised equaled $240,000.

Randy Sebastian, President of Renaissance Homes, does not dispute the appraisal but says the city accepted his offer.

“Who knows if the appraisal was correct or not? We don’t know; we just know that ... financially, it works for us and works for the city and it will work out for the three families that live on the site,” said

The Woods Park Advocates also are outraged at the buttoned-up manner in which they feel the sale was made. Though the council approved the ordinance declaring the Freeman Tank property as surplus and directing the Water Bureau to sell it, Solomon and his neighbors contend that wasn’t enough public notice.

“The city’s going to say, ‘But there has been ... public discussion,’ “ Solomon said. “We don’t keep tabs on the minutes of the City Council. I subscribe to The Oregonian, but I don’t remember an article about it. ... Nobody knew about it, so what qualifies as public discussion?”

“I think there has to be public notice for there to be public discussion,” said Jane Peterson, another Woods Park Advocate, articulating one of her cohorts’ greatest complaints: According to them, no signs were posted and no public notices were distributed informing citizens of the proposed sale or development.

When asked how neighbors could have been expected to know that the Freeman Tank property might have been up for sale,

Water Bureau Community Information & Involvement Manager Tim Hall told the Tribune that the agendas for both council hearings on the ordinance had been posted online in advance, as well as in The Daily Journal of Commerce.

“It is not unusual for neighborhood associations and business associations to monitor Council’s agenda and alert neighbors to relevant items,” Hall said via email. “There was no public testimony at the first Council hearing. The Council authorized the Water Bureau to declare this parcel surplus and dispose of it in June 2010. The parcel was listed on Craigslist in March 2012.” The price then was $187,000.

Hall added that a neighbor of the Freeman Tank, Bill Cely, had “expressed interest in acquiring the land, but chose not move forward with purchasing it.”

Though the city initially heard no complaints from neighbors of the Freeman Tank property, on June 23, 2010, RoseMarie Opp, a resident of the Mill Park neighborhood in Southeast Portland, submitted testimony via email reacting to the surplus property sale ordinance.

“These properties are public lands and deserve a much broader outreach and consideration than was given in this case,” Opp said. “I am quite troubled by the precedent setting of what seems to be quickly disposing of public lands without adequate public involvement. There does not seem to be a good procedure in place other than an announcement on a Friday for a following Wednesday hearing. Public properties deserve more consideration than that and strict rules should be required when disposing of public lands.”

Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the water bureau, agrees there should have been more public notice.

“While this level of notification is sufficient, City Commissioner Nick Fish has directed the Portland Water Bureau to expand its public notice going forward. He wants to ensure that there is transparency in the City’s surplus property disposition process. ... The Portland Water Bureau will now take steps to expand its public notice of real surplus property that is to be sold,” said Hall.

Ironically, Fish was absent from the vote to authorize the sale. Although he is in charge of the water bureau now, that wasn’t the case during the vote or when Renaissance Homes made its offer.

Right now, the Freeman Tank sale is in limbo. The land-use review for Renaissance Homes’ plan to divide the land into three lots within a potential landslide hazard was deemed incomplete on July 5. The developer has until Dec. 4, Solomon said, to fulfill it.

The Woods Park Advocates are hoping that this will buy enough time for the city to reconsider selling.

“It would be easy to paint this with a brush of the NIMBY whiners, but that would be misrepresenting what I think most of us believe,” said Woods Park Advocate Doug Reynolds. “I live two blocks away from this site, and within a two-block radius, there are two in-fills that are currently being built ... and there was no ... uproar, no outcry from the community because in these cases, they were lots held privately, being sold and developed ... between two different houses, and they were what you would expect in-fill to be.”

The Freeman Tank property, however, is “different because of the enhanced ecological value that the property has, and I think even more importantly, it’s because this is public land, and we believe that public land is held in trust for the public good. ... And perhaps on some occasion the best public good would be to sell it and develop it, but we believe that in this case that discussion hasn’t been made in a public forum, and I think most of us believe that developing it is not the best.”

Sebastian disagrees.

“Nobody wants somebody building in their backyard. It’s understandable and it’s reasonable, but at the same time, we have the urban growth boundary that draws a ring around the city of Portland that’s made properties within the boundary available and very valuable. It’s not zoned greenspace; it’s zoned (for) residential development,” he said.

While they are loathe to be pigeonholed as indignant environmentalists, the Woods Park Advocates say they feel it would be a shame not to give the property a fair chance to be preserved as a natural space. Brown creepers, band-tailed pigeons, red-breasted sapsuckers, pileated woodpeckers, green horned owls, screech owls and native squirrels all call the little plat home.

And when you get right down to it, the Woods Park Advocates share with local wildlife a personal attachment to the Freeman Tank property as well.

“I bought my parents’ house,” Woods Park Advocate Gibbie Miller said. “I’ve been in Woods Park just about every single day of my life, and it really saddens me that I might not be able to go there anymore. It’s peaceful; it’s quiet. I spent ... years doing schoolwork down there, shouting to the streets, memorizing my speeches, flash cards, everything. I’ve canoodled with boyfriends, drank beer. ... This is my home, and I just hope we can stop this.”