The city of Portland was coming off as a schoolyard bully in its dealings with Gresham over placement of an emergency communications tower, but that attitude began to change Monday afternoon.

That’s when Portland altered course, saying it was willing to pursue a third-party evaluation, and to consider alternative sites and alternative technologies for the communication tower.

We welcome that news, having believed all along that the matter — like any playground dispute — is best resolved through third-party intervention.

At issue is a 140-foot tower proposed to be erected on land that Portland purchased atop Gresham Butte 14 years ago. The structure would replace a 40-foot radio tower already at the site.

Residents of the Gresham Butte area, along with Mayor Shane Bemis, have pointed out that the new tower could be an eyesore extending 20 feet above the tallest trees on a butte that otherwise stands relatively unblemished. The tower, which originally was proposed to be 180 feet tall, is needed to improve emergency communications into hard-to-reach areas, such as the Sandy River canyon.

Bemis and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales have been talking about the possibility of finding a compromise on the tower, but Hales outraged his Gresham counterpart on Friday when Portland announced its decision to move ahead with a land-use application for the project.

Under Gresham’s land-use code, a special-use permit is required for the tower, which would be located in a residential zone. Hales said Portland had to push forward with the permitting process because it could take 180 days to get approval and the tower needs to be up and running by early 2015.

We understand the need for timely improvement of the regional emergency communications system, but it is essential that Portland also recognize the risk of a protracted land-use dispute. In the short run, Gresham holds the upper hand in this debate. Its staff must issue an even-handed judgment on the special-use permit, but its political leaders and neighborhood groups can appeal any land-use decision all the way up to the state Land Use Board of Appeals — a process that could take considerably longer than the 180 days feared by Portland.

That’s why it makes more sense for Portland to enter into serious discussions with Gresham about possible alternatives to its current plan.

But we aren’t convinced that Portland’s decision to pursue a third-party evaluation will have the desired result. That’s because Portland plans to hire a familiar company at its own expense to produce the evaluation. Undoubtedly, that will lead to doubts in Gresham as to whether the outcome is truly non-biased.

The only way a third-party evaluation would have any value to both cities is to share in the selection of the company that does the evaluation, and share the expense of hiring that company. Gresham residents must be convinced that alternative sites and technologies have been explored in a credible manner before they can be convinced that aesthetics should be sacrificed in return for better emergency communications.

This particular tower — which will cost $649,000 — is just a small part of a $50 million emergency response radio replacement project. In the end, the project will provide better emergency communications to first responders, including police, fire and 9-1-1 dispatchers throughout Multnomah County. Gresham residents want those services to be available when needed, which means they understand the balance between preserving vistas and preserving lives.

This is a case where slowing down at the start will allow the process to move more quickly later.

Portland’s mayor and emergency officials have embraced Gresham’s call for a third-party review of the options. Now, the city of Gresham must demonstrate an equal share of goodwill by partnering with Portland on that study.

If the two cities choose to fight, instead of cooperating toward a solution, a much-needed project will only encounter greater delays.

Contract Publishing

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