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Planners backed the site development plan, but city councilors had concerns about walkability and traffic.

PMG PHOTO: SHELBY COKELEY - A proposal to build a Dollar General store in Forest Grove was shot down Monday, Aug. 12, by the Forest Grove City Council.Bucking the city's volunteer planning commission, the Forest Grove City Council voted 5-1 on Monday night, Aug. 12, to reject a proposal for a new store in northwest Forest Grove.

California-based developer Steve Powell applied to build a Dollar General store off Gales Creek Road. While the planning commission signed off on the idea in a 5-2 decision in June, its approval was appealed to the City Council, which rejected the plan after a nearly three-hour public hearing Monday.

Nine Forest Grove residents testified at the hearing, all of them opposing the development plan.

While some opponents have focused on Dollar General's business practices, the City Council asked speakers Monday to keep their comments focused on the development code and traffic and pedestrian safety.

The store was proposed at 1121 Gales Creek Road, near the Y-shaped intersection with Thatcher Road.

Members of the City Council appeared confused as to how to interpret Forest Grove's development code.

The parcel sought for development, which not quite an acre in size, is zoned as neighborhood mixed-use.

The city's development code states that in a neighborhood mixed-use zone, "Most non-residential uses must be located within a 'Village Center.' The Village Center is intended to serve as the center of the neighborhood, providing convenient access to goods and services as well as 'third places' where residents can gather."

Mike Connors, attorney for the developer, advised the City Council that it shouldn't interpret the code so narrowly.

"It's interesting to hear about some of the history behind the prior zone … that that was part of what was determined to impede development in the area," Connors said. "I think if you endorse the appellants' interpretation of the code, you're going to be back in that same position."

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax speaks during the 2019 State of the City luncheon in February.But opponents said the code matters, and it doesn't support the Dollar General plan.

"It's clear that both the proponents and the opponents of the appeal agree that the property is not zoned for this type of development," said David Michael Smith, speaking in opposition.

The city's development code also identifies the purpose of that zoning type as "to encourage the development of pedestrian-friendly mixed use neighborhoods."

Opponent Christopher Wilmeth argued that the developer has a "willful disregard" for public safety.

"The City of Forest Grove established the neighborhood mixed-use zoning designation to support the development of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods," Wilmeth reminded the council.

Tom Waddingham said he'd gone out to the proposed site of the Dollar General store earlier on Monday and didn't find the area to be pedestrian-friendly at all, and he doesn't think building Dollar General there would change that fact.

"I felt like I was playing 'Frogger,' the video game, just getting across the highway to take a couple of snapshots," Waddingham complained.

Other opponents who spoke at Monday's meeting included Devon Downeysmith, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the City Council last year, and Kate Grandusky, who chairs the Forest Grove School Board.

"We need to be thoughtful and clearer when we look at a site like this and think about our students and our community," Grandusky said. "We support new businesses and we support jobs, but I'm really concerned about the safety of our students in Forest Grove."

Forest Grove city staff backed the development plan, recommending it be conditionally approved.

The stretch of Gales Creek Road where the store was proposed is already challenging for pedestrians without the Dollar General being there, Connors noted. He said the city could even use system development charges and property taxes it would collect from the development to improve pedestrian safety in the area.

"It is a serious problem, but it's not going to go away if you don't approve our development or you don't allow other development," Connors said. "I think development can facilitate solutions towards those problems."

City Councilor Ron Thompson agreed.

"My question is why did individuals move to this community?" Thompson asked rhetorically. "It's because we move forward. And this, we have an opportunity to move forward."

"I don't think anyone here disagrees with moving forward," Councilor Tim Rippe responded. "It's how we move forward."

On a motion by Rippe, the City Council voted to uphold the appeal and deny the application.

"I am getting the vibrations that … preliminary plan approval is the only means by which a village center may be established," Mayor Pete Truax said before voting in favor of Rippe's motion. "We would be obligated to uphold the appeal and deny the application."

More than one council member also said they are concerned that a traffic study cited by the developer is outdated and may not present an accurate portrait of Gales Creek Road and the surrounding area.

"I have difficulty with a traffic study that is so old, knowing the amount of trips that our police and fire make out on that road all the time," Councilor Elena Uhing said.

"We need to be more consistent and have a better vision on what we want our community to look like," concluded Councilor Adolph "Val" Valfre Jr.

Council President Tom Johnston was absent from Monday's meeting for health reasons.

The City Council is the highest authority in Forest Grove, but it doesn't necessarily have the final word. Local land use decisions can be appealed to the state Land Use Board of Appeals in Salem.

Asked after Monday's vote whether the applicant, WoodCrest Real Estate Ventures, will file an appeal, Powell and Connors didn't have an immediate answer. It is "way too premature" to say whether the City Council's decision will face an appeal, Connors told the News-Times.

By Mark Miller
Washington County Editor
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