In breaking down one of the many issues facing the business community of West Linn during a joint session with the West Linn City Council and Planning Commission July 17, Economic Development Committee (EDC) member Jennifer Harmon cited "Ps versus Cs."
The "P" stood for "permitted use" while the "C" indicated "conditional" — the latter often throwing extra fees and bureaucratic roadblocks at businesses looking to come into a city. Why, Harmon wondered, did West Linn have to make it so difficult while surrounding cities opened their gates by allowing an array of business options?
"I was shocked when (EDC member) Shannen (Knight) introduced to us, side-by-side, Gladstone, Milwaukie, Tualatin, Oregon City — all the 'Ps' they have versus all of our 'Cs'," Harmon said. "Which makes it, literally, indefensible for us to even try to attract a business."
The joint work session between the EDC, City Council and Planning Commission was intended to address immediate priorities in West Linn's effort to improve its business climate.
Based on various outreach efforts, including surveys and open houses, the EDC suggested a number of action items, including code and zoning changes, fee adjustments and support for a rejuvenated Chamber of Commerce.
Changes to what Harmon referred to as "arcane laws" and codes were perhaps most important.
As an example, she cited current code language that prohibits food trucks — even at special events.
Knight, for her part, elaborated on the sharp differences between West Linn and other cities.
"We'd like to see some changes to make the code more flexible to the modern kinds of businesses we have these days," Knight said. "When I did research in other cities, our mixed use zone doesn't really allow anything but a daycare or a bed and breakfast. But if I look at mixed use zones for all other cities locally — I did Lake Oswego, Milwaukie and Oregon City — they pretty much allow everything without a conditional use permit."
EDC members said fees were another problem, creating a catch-22 for the City.
"The City gets money from permits, and they're revenue-generating," Knight said. "But that makes it anti-business, so it's kind of a conflict of interest. We need money, but we want to make it easier (for businesses to come in)."
As for the Chamber of Commerce, EDC representatives said that the City should take a more active role in supporting and legitimizing that arm of the business community.
Responses from the Planning Commission and City Council were largely positive, and both bodies agreed that action should be taken sooner rather than later. They added, however, that swift changes should be balanced with caution.
"We want to be careful when we open the door to mixed use, that we do it carefully, and in order to do that we have to have a vision of the direction we want the city to move in," City Councilor Bob Martin said. "We want to make sure we take the time to get them right, because the consequences can be bad."
Planning Commissioner Jim Farrell cited the recent "Cut the Red Tape" code changes as an example of what the city should look to avoid.
"When we're doing something like this, we have to be really careful because of the repercussions to residents," he said.
Fellow Planning Commission Gary Walvatne added that the city's current codes often make it difficult to evaluate a development application.
"I would like to support modernizing business definitions, because that's something we have seen and it's really frustrating when someone comes in and has to shoehorn to what we have in the Community Development Code, and it hasn't been updated in 30 years," Walvatne said.
The council and City staff agreed to look at an array of action items moving forward, including a potential transient lodging tax, an evaluation of fee structures and code changes.
"I'm ready to take (code changes) on," Community Development Director John Williams said. "We just finished today the drafting of geotechnical and stormwater code ... I feel like there's a pretty concrete list of immediate 'to dos' that can come out of this meeting."