Speed of Basalt Creek planning aggravating landowners
Stakeholders and concerned community members gathered recently to hear an update on the contentious Basalt Creek planning area.
A joint planning project dating back to 2004, the Basalt Creek planning area was originally added to the urban growth boundary by Metro to accommodate increased development throughout the region for the next 20 years. The plan for the site includes creating new city limits for Tualatin and Wilsonville, industrial, employment and residential land use codes for future development, improved transportation networks and provision for urban services. The Wilsonville City Council and staff felt that they had finally come to a plan of action with the other partners, designating the majority of the land as industrial, employment land, until September 2016, causing new negotiates and delays.
City of Wilsonville staff met with project staff partners from the City of Tualatin, Washington County and Metro the afternoon of April 17 to discuss where the project stands, particularly concerning the "central subarea." The roughly 41-acre area near the northeast and center of the larger planning zone was initially designated as industrial, employment zoned land with all project partners tentatively in agreement. But in September, Tualatin requested that the area be redesignated as residential rather than industrial or employment because of the rough topography, steep slopes and large chunks of basalt rock that punctuate the area. This request caused friction between Tualatin and the other project partners.
City of Wilsonville staff reported that they made it clear that the City and council want to be sensitive to land use suitability. As a result, Wilsonville has commissioned an additional land use study to better determine whether the 41-plus-acre area should be residential, industrial or employment zoning.
"The important thing is not just moving ahead regardless," Councilor Lehan said.
But several landowners in the Basalt Creek planning area disagree with the claim that additional studies are needed. They want shovels in the ground. One such landowner is Gordon Root, a principal and founder of Stafford Land Company and in the land development business since 1984.
"I have been intimately involved in the urban growth boundary expansion in 2004 and the meetings coming up to that point in time," Root said at the April 17 City Council meeting. "I've watched — sometimes silently, other times not so silently — the Basalt Creek planning area."
During his testimony, Root brought a document with several key points of land use contained in the ordinance that founded the Basalt Creek planning area, Metro ordinance 04-1040B.
"It seems that many people who are making the decisions about what happens in Basalt Creek maybe haven't seen the guiding document, which is the ordinance," Root said.
The ordinance outlined the original directions for the timing of the project, which states that the cities of Wilsonville and Tualatin, in conjunction with Metro, were supposed to complete planning within two years of the Basalt Parkway alignment selection or within seven years of the effective date of the 2004 ordinance.
"This means that by October of 2011… and we haven't even turned a shovel of dirt," Root said. "There are people, like myself, who make financial investments based upon the guidance given by government, and I bought a $7.5 million piece of land based upon this ordinance."
Due to the 10 percent interest rate that his investment was made under, Root says that his payment is $62,000 per month.
"Any delays in this being adopted is real money to me and I feel it daily," Root said. "I think that if we all look back to the ordinance that was adopted and the planning and timeframes that have been since then, we could have learned a lot by just following the ordinance instead of the protracted period that we've gone through. So, just giddy-up, get through it and let's be done."
Another landowner, Sherman Leitgeb, also gave his testimony, expressing his frustration and concern about the Wilsonville City Council's hope to use the land as employment. On April 21, Leitgeb, owner of part of the 41 acres, insisted that the land's accessibility, grade and pockets of thick basalt rock make sections of it unsuitable for anything other than residential.
Landowner Herb Koss, a real estate developer and former banker, owns 10 acres near Grahams Ferry Road within the 41 acres, bought 10 years ago as an investment. Koss said that when he first walked the property, he felt that it was a solid investment and went for it in partnership with The Sherwood Grahams Ferry Investors LLC.
Drawing on his years of land development experience in the region, including working with slopes on the Cascade Summit project where West Linn City Hall is located, he said that developers would be foolhardy to consider using it for industrial or employment.
"I'm very cognisant of grades and costs," Koss said, adding that grading the land would be financially impractical for sections of the area.
To back up his beliefs, Koss invited senior vice president of industrial real estate management and development firm PacTrust to the site as well as commissioned a topography, access and recommended land use study by Otak Inc. (Otak). Bechen and the late-2016 study both indicated that Koss' land had limited access and too many severe slopes. Otak also indicated that the "site would be extremely difficult to develop given today's American with Disabilities ACT (ADA) requirements."
After having his suspicions confirmed by his consultants, Koss and his partners said that they felt confident that the land would be tagged for residential development until Wilsonville's City Council decided March 20 to put the project on hold to further evaluate the feasibility of using the 41-acre area as industrial or employment.
"That's when I found out that the staff person had not provided the information that Tualatin had to make their decision," Koss said. "The Tualatin people have been very logical and only made their decision once they had all of the facts. In Wilsonville, the council didn't have all of the facts because I think that staff hid them from them. I don't know why, but I know for a fact that one of them told me that they didn't think that it was relevant information."
Koss identified the City of Wilsonville staffer as Community Development Director and City Engineer Nancy Kraushaar. Leitgeb confirmed Koss' account.
When asked about the study, Kraushaar said that Koss' accusations were false and that the Wilsonville City Council has seen and reviewed the Otak study. As for why the Otak study information was not included in a decision-making, March 20 work session presentation to the Wilsonville council was because the study documents arrived at City Hall on a Friday after the presentation for the following Monday's work session had already been completed.
"In our presentation that night, we specifically included the information that had been presented to the Tualatin City Council," Kraushaar said, referencing several slide from the presentation with topography and slope information in the 41-acre area. "So from my perspective, we did not withhold information."
Since then, Wilsonville city staff have commissioned its own third-party study to either confirm Otak's findings or refute them. Kraushaar stressed no ill-will or malcontent was intended.
"I never said that we don't need their study," Kraushaar said, adding that the city simply wants to do its due diligence to ensure that its backing the right zoning decision. "With the consultant that we selected, we said, 'Be objective and don't just give us the answers that you feel that we're looking for.'"
The city-commissioned study is currently underway and its findings will be shown to the City Council when it is completed.
"This is in no way to criticize what they're done," Kraushaar said. "We just want to have another look because we want to have confidence in our desire for employment (land) and the belief that we think it's possible."
Some Landowners still aren't impressed and feel that the project should just move forward into development — with a focus on residential.
"I've been in this business for long enough that if I'm not going to win I'm not going to fight because it's a tough enough business as it is without entering the arena knowing that you're going to lose," Koss said. "We have all of the property owners within the 41 acres and all the neighboring property owners on our side and that usually doesn't happen. But they realize that if their property isn't zoned for housing that their land is sale-proof because nobody will buy it… So we decided that we as a group are going to fight this together. I'm not just in this to get my land changed. I got in there for the whole group of property owners and I still am."