When Dorianne and Doug Palmer were first looking at their home on College View Drive — a narrow, dead-end street near West Linn's northern city limits — they asked their realtor about the large forest that bordered the backyard.
The Palmers' real estate agent called the seller's agent, who said she'd been told that a woman had bought the land specifically so that it would never be built on. With that peace of mind, the Palmers decided to move forward with the purchase.
"That was one of the biggest reasons we bought the house," Dorianne Palmer said. "And it was a lie."
Indeed, what was thought to be a permanent open space would instead be sold to a developer after the Palmers moved in. And it wasn't until later that the Palmers learned about the R-4.5 zoning on the vacant property, which carried a minimum square footage of 4,500 for single-family detached units — perfect real estate for the large scale residential development that would soon arrive on their doorsteps.
On June 26, after a multi-year application process that went through several appeals at different levels of government, the West Linn City Council approved a final order allowing construction of the 34-lot "Chene Blanc" subdivision of single family homes at 18000 Upper Midhill Drive. Palmer and other concerned residents could only watch as their dreams of a quiet and secluded suburban lifestyle went up in smoke.
"We were naive," Palmer said.
Though West Linn is considered largely built out, clever developers continue to squeeze what they can out of the open land available. The frenzy over proposed developments hits almost everyone — from city councilors to planners, attorneys, real estate agents and residents — and the most common refrain is simple.
"We didn't know."
Palmer certainly didn't know what was coming when she bought her home. Neither did Jason and Jessica Harra, who moved into their home on Hillside Drive in 2016 when the Upper Midhill project was still going through the application process at City Hall.
"Real estate agents are trying to sell the house, so they said it was getting denied, don't worry," Jason Harra said. "I didn't worry about it."
Palmer, Harra and many other residents fought back when the reality of the situation hit, but ultimately it was too late. The City Council, while vocally against the project, found itself boxed in by an application that technically met the standards for approval and a legal team on the developer's side that seemingly had an answer for everything.
So what can people do to avoid these situations? City staff, elected officials, real estate professionals and seasoned residents each bring their own perspectives to the matter, but they can agree on one point.
It starts before you even buy a house.
A game of zones
West Linn City Manager Eileen Stein jokes that municipal employees are perhaps the worst realty clients, simply because of how much they know about the ins and outs of city life. Yet in cases similar to the Upper Midhill situation, it can be helpful to think like a city planner.
"If you're moving (next to) an open space, it's incumbent on people when they're buying the property to really know what they're buying," Stein said. "They're not just buying their parcel, they're buying their neighborhood. And that big open space might just be platted for development, so an educated buyer should be informed about those types of things."
Stein said a visit to City Hall can help buyers find information about how an area is zoned and what — if any — developments are proposed on it.
Zoning is a particularly important aspect of the scouting process, as it very clearly lays out what kinds of development will be allowed in a given space. If the Upper Midhill land had been zoned R-10, for example — and thus carried a minimum lot size of 10,000 square feet for single-family homes — the Chene Blanc development would have been dead on arrival.
"When it's zoned R-4.5, it's a big red flag," City Council President Brenda Perry said. "And if it's zoned R-10, it's probably something you can live with."
Palmer said zoning should absolutely be a key factor in considering a new home.
"We knew nothing about potential development, or zoning at that time, and thought we had purchased the property we would live in for decades," Palmer said. "We now know if there is any undeveloped property near a home you might purchase, look into not only who owns it, but the zoning as well."
Stein added that it's not just zoning that buyers should consider.
"It's not even how the (surrounding) land is going to be developed — hopefully people are checking their property titles," Stein said. "There might be an easement on their property they didn't bother to educate themselves about, or some other type of development restriction that could be on their property or in the neighborhood that could be activated."
No time for caution
Stein doesn't want to sound unsympathetic. She knows how difficult the process of buying a home can be, how easy it is to miss the one detail that ends up changing everything.
This is particularly true, she says, in a frenzied real estate market that turns the cautious buyer into a luckless buyer.
"There's no time to think about your purchase," Stein said. "There are so many bids that come in that you just throw your bid in and hope you even get accepted. And that due diligence period of time with home inspection really becomes that period of time of, 'Oh, OK, now I really need to find out what I just bid on."
Real estate agent Gail Rupp of Windermere Stellar in Lake Oswego, who has been in the field since 1988, agrees.
"Things are moving very quickly, and people have to make a decision very quickly," Rupp said. "But if they can't tolerate an unknown, they shouldn't buy it."
Beware of the unknown
Indeed, Rupp's primary advice to buyers considering land next to an open space is simple.
"The standard practice is to acknowledge it's open space, but it would not become their property and therefore they have no control over it," Rupp said. "Some people take that chance and hope it doesn't get developed. Some people don't because they would be constantly concerned about what gets put next door."
Stein agrees, and says some areas provide far more certainty than others.
"The best place to move into if you want no change is a platted subdivision, because chances are it's not going to change, other than that housing stock is going to get older with time," Stein said. "If you're moving next to a commercial area ... you have no idea what the next commercial tenant will be, such as an adult bookstore for example if it's zoned and allowed, or whatever."
Searching for solutions
Palmer and Harra were frustrated with how City staff and the council handled the Upper Midhill issue, feeling they should have recognized the perceived problems with the application and denied it. Staff and councilors felt they did all they could, particularly in attaching a number of conditions of approval to the application to hold the developer accountable.
Amicable solutions are exceedingly rare when a development application truly begins to gain steam. The key, then, is to be aware of your situation before you even move in.
"As a city if there's anything else we can be doing to assist the potential buyer in that very fast process, I'm certainly open to looking at that," Stein said.
"You don't want surprises later," Palmer said. "Even if the zoning is incorrect for the location, you can't count on the city to back you up.
"Look what happened to us."
Looking to learn more about a property? Type the address into Clackamas County's map system at http://cmap.clackamas.us/maps/cmap.
You can also learn more by visiting West Linn City Hall or contacting the planning department at 503-742-6060