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City Commission split on direction for Waterboard Park area, now that Public Works is headed elsewhere

Rachel Lyles SmithOregon City voters electing two new city commissioners again puts the future of the Waterboard Park area in doubt.

Commissioner-elect Rocky Smith joined Commissioner Frank O'Donnell in favoring an expansion of the official boundaries of the park to be protected by votes of all citizens, but they'll need a third City Commission vote in order to achieve this goal. Commissioner-elect Rachel Lyles Smith and Commissioner Nancy Ide acknowledged they may be swing votes when it comes to expanding the boundaries of the park for charter protection.

Saying that the neighborhood has enough parkland, Mayor Dan Holladay would like the entire area being used by Public Works to return to the private sector so the city can have it back on the tax rolls.

Rather than expanding the Public Works facility at Waterboard Park, city officials in 2018 purchased a 4.79-acre site on Fir Street with enough space for the Public Works Department to share space with a parks maintenance facility.

Smith and O'Donnell would like to explore affordable-housing options for the Center Street properties, but not for the higher portions of the current 8-acre Public Works "upper yard" known to neighbors as "Lower Waterboard Park." Ide's priority as commissioner has long been to find more housing options in the city, but she said she hasn't heard of any housing proposals for the Waterboard Park area.

"If there was an affordable housing project for the commission to consider, that's exactly what I would do is consider whether it's something in the best interest of the city as a whole, as long as it wasn't in an area that is specifically designated as parkland," Ide said. "The best area to put a project like that is a place where it wouldn't affect neighbors, but then it would have people who live there who would want to be part of the community and a neighborhood."

McLoughlin Neighborhood Association representatives had opposed a plan to expand Public Works facilities at Waterboard Park. A county judge determined that the current Public Works area was never designated as charter-protected parkland, but neighbors had threatened to appeal the decision that would have cleared the way for construction at the site without a public vote.

This month, fresh off her election victory, Lyles Smith met with two representatives of the McLoughlin Neighborhood Association, and next month she plans to get a formal tour of Waterboard Park and Public Works facilities. 

"I think there are a few options on the table and my goal, as I stated when campaigning, is to find a compromise that gives something to everyone," Lyles Smith said of the Waterboard Park dispute.

"That being said, a compromise means that no party gets everything they want. But there may be external factors, like the physical characteristics of the area, that help determine the final outcome. We'll have to see where we land when we all come to the table to discuss it in the new year."

Neighborhood leaders hope the City Commission's view toward Waterboard Park will shift with the newly elected commissioners. Neighborhood attorney Jesse Buss also hopes for an end to the city's "aggressive" and "scorched-earth legal strategy" that involved an unsuccessful attempt by the city's attorney to seek sanctions against Buss personally.

Buss had no objection to Oregon City's requests for reimbursement for its $262 filing fee and $160 witness/mileage fees. However, the neighborhood successfully convinced Circuit Judge Katherine E. Weber on Nov. 9 to deny Oregon City's request for reimbursement for the more than $2,000 cost of poster-size boards the city used as informational displays during the trial.

Weber agreed with the city not to reopen the case after the Fir Street purchase. City attorney Gregory J. Miner had said the neighborhood "had the opportunity to challenge the future use of Waterboard Park's disputed area in their appeal of the planning approvals to the Land Use Board of Appeals."

In a related Land Use Board of Appeals case, the neighborhood challenged the city's plan to expand Public Works at Waterboard Park, but those plans were put on hold when the city decided to purchase land on Fir Street for that purpose. If the city wants to zone property for housing instead in the disputed area, it would face a challenge from the neighborhood.

Buss pointed to a recent decision by the Oregon Court of Appeals putting the brakes on the city of Hood River's plan to build affordable housing on parkland. Hood River officials had incorrectly interpreted Oregon "Goal 8" policies protecting park sites from incompatible uses on nearby properties rather than precluding incompatible uses on the park sites themselves.

Oregon City's current comprehensive plan identifies Waterboard Park's disputed area as eligible for those Goal 8 protections.

"Regardless of what Judge Weber said about designation versus dedication, the commissioners still have to honor Goal 8 of Oregon City's comprehensive plan to preserve park inventory," Buss said.

Saying it would be a "huge undertaking," Ide is hesitant to ask the city to develop or take care of more land as Waterboard Park at this point because of the estimated $27 million in deferred local park maintenance.

"We need to take care of what we have before we add more," Ide said. "With the commission nicely representing various citizen viewpoints on this issue, it's going to be a very lively discussion, and I look forward to it ... I'm just open to hearing more from both sides; I'm noncommittal as this point."

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