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One group plans to sue, says Portland violated state law



PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Preservationists helped negotiate a 120-day delay for the Ancient The Order of the United Workmen building at Southwest Second and Taylor earlier this year, but the building is still set to be demolished.Once snooze-worthy topics — buildings and city code — are becoming increasingly popular as Portland makes changes big and small in the wake of gentrification and urban renewal.

But a small change in code back in 2002 forming a legal loophole has caused irreparable harm, says Meg Hanson, an activist who’s planning a class action lawsuit.

The harm? Demolition of historic buildings when they possibly should have been afforded a 120-day demolition delay period.

The Bureau of Development services finally closed the 14-year-old loophole on Aug. 31 in a service update, now requiring a 120-day delay before demolition or building permits are issued for any of the 2,745 ranked buildings on the Historic Resource Inventory.

The inventory, created in 1984, is used by the Portland Historic Landmarks Commission to evaluate applications for landmark designations.

Under city rules, a 120-day demolition delay was the only “protection” a building had by being being listed on the Historic Resource Inventory. But that became pointless when the loophole was created in 2002 enabling a property owner to delist and receive a demolition permit in the same day.

The inventory emerged from obscurity when high-profile buildings, such as the Hotel Albion and the Ancient Order of United Workmen Temple, were yanked off the inventory and slated for demolition.

The increasing rate at which this scenario was happening caused alarm to members of the historic preservation community, who wondered where the delay time had gone.

The historic preservation advocacy group Restore Oregon had been urging the city to change its practices since 2013, even threatening to take the city to court over the removal of the Workmen Temple from the inventory.

The threat didn’t come to fruition; Restore Oregon Executive Director Peggy Moretti says the organization fares better working with the city than against it.

Sudden change and state law

Regardless of repeated requests from organizations and activists, the bureau maintains it decided to evaluate its practices and make changes to align with state law, ORS 197.772, after the Oregon Supreme Court ruling issued on Aug. 4 in the case of Lake Oswego Preservation Society vs. City of Lake Oswego, in which the owner of a property — the Carman House — was barred from removing its historical designation.

“Upon further review, we decided we needed to be more consistent,” with ORS 197.772, says Ross Caron, public information officer for the Bureau of Development Services.

Before the ruling, the city asserted it was not violating state law because listing on the Historic Resource Inventory, ranked or not, did not amount to an “official” historic designation.

Restore Oregon says the city was misinterpreting state law.

Meg Hanson and her group, Close the Loophole Coalition, believe the city was violating the law by not offering the 120-day delay protection, which is outlined in the state’s “Goal 5” rules, a set of goals for protection of natural resoures, historic areas and open spaces.

Lawsuit

Even though the city has decided to comply, Hanson says a lawsuit is just the next step — “a natural progression” after all that has happened.

Hanson, a local assistant architect and engineer, became invested and created Close the Loophole Coalition when a developer planned to demolish 3334 S.E. Belmont, a 127-year-old building that many rallied to preserve earlier this year.

She has done extensive research on what she believes is the illegal issuance of demolition permits since the loophole’s creation in 2002.

A look at the city’s previous code on HRI properties back in 1996 was clear: Ordinance said inventoried properties may be delisted at the end of the demolition delay period, which complied with Goal 5 rules at the time.

In June 2002, this code was removed, and another was added that stated a resource listed on the inventory would be removed if the owner sends a written request on the date the office receives it. Mention of the delay period was erased.

Hanson believes that the loophole may have been created intentionally when the city was under pressure by the city auditor to create a faster permit-issuing process.

Repercussions of such a goal, according to Hanson and other advocates, are demolitions of buildings that could have been considered for protections by The National Register of Historic Places, while contributing to the erasure of the city’s “character.”

Preservation on the backburner

Listing on the Historic Resource Inventory is often the first step for higher-level protection by the registry, which offers certain tax provisions and federal grants.

Kirk Ranzetta, chair of Portland’s Historic Landmarks Commission, says that creation of historic districts might actually help blunt negative forces of gentrification.

“In some older Portland neighborhoods, for instance, developers have been acquiring a $600,000 to $800,000 property, demolishing the house, and building two new homes ... for $1 million to $1.2 million,” he says. “ ... it is almost as if the original neighborhood gentrifiers are being gentrified themselves.”

Hanson remains concerned that the city didn’t enforce the delay.

“By not enforcing a 120-day delay as they should have been, the public didn’t have time,” Hanson says, pointing to the case of Ocobock Mansion, 5128 N.E. Rodney Ave., which was initially listed on the inventory, but delisted by a new owner and developer. Neighbors scrambled, requesting a delay and an appeal for an extension, eventually raising $1.1 million to save the house from demolition.

“It would have been handy if they would have had time up front instead of having to push and push against the city and developer,” Hanson says.

The city has acknowledged citizen complaints.

“The city’s experiencing a rate of growth that has led to (this) ... we’ve seen an increase in demolitions and building of complexes,” says Caron, adding that it’s been “a year or two” now of enforcing a 35-day residential demolition delay period, which was amended significantly in 2015 for the first time in 13 years in response to concerns over the “frequency ... and lost opportunity around time for people to come and work with property owners on salvaging a property.”

Many preservationists understand the need for growth, but are hopeful of more appreciation of local history by state and local government.

“We have to navigate a path of accommodating growth but without completely losing the character of this place and all of the things that make Portland Portland in the process,” Moretti says.

Map

See a map of all Historic Resource Inventory properties online at

portlandoregon.gov/bps/article/346583

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