Citing foggy federal rules and needing more guidance on homeownership definitions, the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) has recommended that the National Park Service not list the Eastmoreland neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places, at least for now.
Officials say they don't have confidence that the number of homeowners within the proposed historic district area is accurate.
It is important to have the most accurate number in Eastmoreland's case since the number of those opposed is closely reaching the needed 50 percent plus one to officially halt the process.
The recommendation follows a lawsuit filed against the state office just last week by Eastmoreland resident Tom Brown, which says that the state agency would be violating neighborhood residents' rights under the Oregon Administrative Procedures Act and questions SHPO's authority to run the entire program.
"(The lawsuit is) a separate issue that will have to be resolved separately. This is just a procedural problem that we've got to deal with," says Ian Johnson, historian at SHPO who's been working on the nomination.
The state office announced the recommendation to the National Park Service on Monday afternoon, May 15, in a press release, advising the national agency to halt the process "due to an unresolved problem defining the number of owners in the proposed district boundary."
The issue of whether or not to designate the affluent southeast neighborhood as a historic district has been a long and contentious one, as the neighborhood association board pushed forward with the application despite a majority of respondents in a mailer poll voted to oppose the nomination in March.
Those in favor of the district nomination hope to preserve green space, keep out unwanted density and infill by developers and demolishing of homes.
Those opposed don't want the restrictions to home alterations that would come with a listing on the National Register. Some also believe that the neighborhood board has acted inappropriately during the process, especially when it did not stop the nomination after the mailer poll results were announced. One resident, David Simon, filed a grievance against the neighborhood association through the city's Office of Neighborhood Involvement, but the office found that nothing prevents a neighborhood association board from pursuing a historic district designation.
The only way to stop a National Register application is to get a majority of homeowners to sign a notarized objection.
In February, when the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation suggested moving forward with the application, county tax records reflected 2,600 homeowners within the proposed historic district.
But officials say state and federal rules don't clearly answer how to resolve issues of things like deceased owners and trusts.
The number dropped from 2,600 to 2,074 homeowners when officials looked more closely at specific homeownership situations.
According to SHPO, as of May 12, 925 people had objected. That was out of a needed about 1,023, according to Patrick Cummings, a member of Keep Eastmoreland Free. The group has been working to stop the process for months.
Cummings, a self-described "spreadsheet geek" had been keeping track of the objections and number of homeowners himself.
He said he would frequently have to tell the state office they were wrong about numbers.
"I think that this process was designed for small neighborhoods where a group of coherent people could get together and decide to move forward with a process," Cummings says. "Say like, 100 homes. When you have a huge neighborhood like Eastmoreland ... it became contentious and people were looking closely. SHPO just doesn't have the ability to look at a contentious process like this."
Brown, who filed the lawsuit, will push ahead with the suit "if they think the only issue they have with the nomination is the number of residents ... that can vote." He will have to reactivate it. Brown has lived in the neighborhood his whole life and is a landlord who owns commercial real estate in Westmoreland.
"This whole process has been frustrating because the rules are so vague. They're more like guidelines, and the state can't operate that way," Brown says. "Apparently SHPO and the National Park Service can't figure out who the homeowners of Eastmoreland are. If they can't figure out that simple part, how can they evaluate a multiple-page document that has hundreds of errors in it?"
Chris Havel, spokesman for Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, which houses SHPO, says that this particular case "because it's so close, that's what's exposing the softness in the rules."
There have been other neighborhoods that have gone through the process — such as the Buckman neighborhood, which opposed a historic district — but the favor or opposition was much more clear so "it doesn't matter as much. Here, it's so close that you have to really know down to the single person, that, do we have the count right?" Havel said. "In this case where there's almost no margin for error, you have to really be careful with it."
Staff didn't expect the "weirder permutations of ownership," according to Havel.
Going forward, the office wants more guidance.
"We're expecting guidance from the National Park Service, and then we'll make sure whatever we're asked to do, or guidance we receive lines up with all of our local laws and we'll come up with a process going forward, and we'll resolve it," says Johnson.
They can't speak to what the National Park Service will decide — and they have 45 days to review, although state officials hope it will be sooner — but, Johnson says, "it's our distinct responsibility to come up with that owner list and check to certify it.
"I can't speak to what they're going to do, but I'd expect them to take our statement seriously."
Robert McCullough, president of the Southeast Uplift neighborhood coalition, treasurer of the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association and known vocal proponent of the district thinks that Brown's lawsuit is a tactic by those opposed to the district, and that SHPO's announcement might just be a bump in the road.
"I don't know whether it's significant or not. It's certainly surprising. This is a lot of money they're spending instead of simply going ahead in a normal fashion," he says. "This doesn't make me want to surrender. We will determine what the board is going to do but I don't think dirty tricks are going to win the day."
Cummings wants a new neighborhood board. He is in the running for a position.
"The neighborhood needs to come together and remove the current board of directors and elect a new slate of directors who are interested in listening to the neighborhood rather than lecturing them," he said.
The Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association will vote on new board members this Thursday at their board meeting and annual members' meeting from 6:30 to 9 p.m. Thursday, May 18 at Reed College.
Public comment and new objections should be submitted to the National Park Service:
Attn: J. Paul Loether, Deputy Keeper
National Park Service
SUBJECT: Eastmoreland, Portland, Oregon
National Register of Historic Places
1849 C St. NW, Mail Stop 7228
Washington, D.C. 20240
This story was updated to include a response from Tom Brown, who had filed a lawsuit against SHPO.