Will Headwaters move ahead?
A proposal to cut down more than 250 trees on property adjacent to a protected wetland natural area and park, to make way for a new 30-lot subdivision, has stirred controversy in Gresham.
"Removing the proposed amount of trees and developing so close to the wetland and forest of Southwest Park will have a negative impact immediately and for generations that we will not be able to repair," Gresham resident Lyndsy Manz warned in a comment to the Gresham Design Commission during their public hearing on the issue Wednesday, Jan. 20.
The densely forested site is next to the Grant Butte Wetlands and Fairview Creek headwaters. To the north is the undeveloped Southwest Community Park, owned by the city of Gresham. The southwest portion of the site is a Habitat Conservation Area.
The proposed new development, called Headwaters, is at 3535 W. Powell Blvd., on 7.82 acres formerly owned by the late Helen Shaull. It's about half-mile east of the Highland Fair shopping center.
SGS Development LLC, headquartered in Bend, plans to develop the lots and sell the property to a builder to construct the 30 homes.
The proposed development unleashed a torrent of public comment and controversy.
A 24-page report by Gresham city staff recommended approval of the subdivision and removal of 267 trees. The city is essentially obliged to approve the 30-lot development as long as it meets state land use guidelines and city codes.
"If a proposal meets the criteria and standards, or can with "reasonable" conditions of approval, it is required to be approved," Elizabeth Coffey, communications director of the city of Gresham said via email.
East County Rising, a political action group, is calling for Metro, East Multnomah Soil and Water Conservation District and the city of Gresham to buy the Shaull acreage to protect it as a natural area.
"We need you to urge them to help bring the land into public ownership," East County Rising said in an email to supporters, Saturday, Jan. 30.
Coffey said the city is having "conversations with potential partners about what solutions exist to keep the land in public ownership." The city is facing a budget crunch which could make purchasing the land, even with partners, difficult.
Chet Antonsen, of SGS Development, said Metro and Gresham had first right of refusal on the property and declined to buy it.
Headwaters "will be an asset to the community, there is no doubt," Antonsen said, "Gresham needs housing."
The Gresham Design Commission is scheduled to make a decision on the Headwaters development by Wednesday, Feb. 24. An appeal of the Design Commission's decision, by either side, must be filed within 12 days after the decision is issued. The Gresham City Council would hear the appeal. The City Council's decision can be appealed to the State Land Use Board of Appeals.
Is it clearcutting?
Calling the property a "regional natural resource significance," The Audubon Society of Portland wrote, "We urge the city of Gresham to do everything possible to ensure the Shaull property is incorporated into this natural area rather than developed."
The Audubon Society argued that the city was not counting the stand of mature fir trees properly and that a proper count would put limits on the cutting and require erosion control. Other commenters agreed that the tree count was not accurate and the proposed tree removal would constitute clear cutting, which triggers a different set of rules.
Even the city's own Urban Forestry Subcommittee wrote about multiple "concerns" it has about the removal of the stand of old fir trees.
Despite public comments expressing concern about "clearcutting" 267 trees, the 24-page report from city staff said, "Given the size and density of the trees and the small lot sizes, there is inadequate room to successfully protect the trees from the construction activity as well as protection from wind-throw until the eventual construction of the homes on the lots," so removing the trees was acceptable under the city code.
John Bildsoe, vice president of the Coalition of Gresham Neighborhoods, wrote that arrowheads and other artifacts from Indigenous people have been found on the site.
Bildsoe wrote, "I respectfully request any discussion of development of the Shaull property be suspended until a thorough examination of the historical and cultural importance of this site be undertaken."
City staff recommended that the State Historic Preservation Office and "the appropriate Tribe(s)" be contacted to determine if archaeological sites and objects are "likely to be present in the project area."
If a site or object is discovered, development activity "shall be immediately suspended," the report said and the city notified.
Carol "Caz" Zyvatkauskas, a Gresham nature photographer, also objected to the Headwaters subdivision.
"To claim this development is acceptable, on the grounds of weak adherence to flimsy codes, does very little to promote that vision of a vibrant green Gresham that was voted for in 1990" in a parks bond, she wrote.
"This is not some inert swampy backwater but a vital habitat for endangered Painted Turtles and a migratory sanctuary for thousands of birds including the American Bittern Blue Heron, Green Heron Bald Eagle and Red-tailed Hawk."
Antonsen said SGS has faced pushback on other projects, some in East Multnomah County.
"I don't think I've ever done a project in 30 years without controversy," he said.
He noted that most housing developments stir up controversy and that "people don't realize that where they live right now was once contentious."
In fact, after similar community pushback in 2014, SGS sold the Gantenbein Farm property at 2826 N.W. Division St. it planned to develop, to Metro, Gresham and the EMSWCD. That property is now the part of the Grant Butte Wetlands.
Antonsen said he paid "around $1 million" for the Shaull property and if he were to sell it, it would be for "a lot more money," explainig that SGS has already spent funds on the Headwaters project.
The developer offered to donate some of the acreage that's in the Habitat Conservation Area to the city for parkland to be added to Southwest Park in exchange for access to Southwest Fifth Drive for infrastructure. If that doesn't happen, a conservation easement will be required.
The Headwaters controversy has been brewing for months. The application for Headwaters was deemed complete by Gresham's Design Commission staff on Dec. 14, 2020, and a public notice went out to nearby property owners on Dec 30. The comments overwhelmingly objected to the development.
Christian Burgess, "a tax payer, voter and concerned resident of Northwest Gresham," wrote to the commission "it saddens and frustrates me that the city of Gresham is allowing wealthy, for-profit, out-of-area developers the 'right' to construct yet another housing development a the expense of what little remains of natural habitats in our city."
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