A sleepy corner of unincorporated Clackamas County has become a battleground embroiled in controversy over the question of annexation, turning once amiable neighbors into political adversaries.
Residents of Southwood Park, a 75-acre rectangle wedged between Southwest Portland, Lake Oswego and Interstate 5, will decide Tuesday, Sept. 17 whether or not they want to become part of the City of Lake Oswego. But squabbles between neighbors highlight just how divisive the topic truly is within this small community on Lake Oswego's western edge.
At the center of the controversy is the Southwood Park Water District, a special water district run by a locally-elected board of citizen volunteers. The water system run by the district and its board is nearly 60 years old, and it could be in need of some major repairs if the district doesn't decide to have LO Public Works take over its water services.
The saga began in 2018 when former water board chair and Southwood Park resident Phil Kubischta approached Clackamas County and the City of Lake Oswego to see if the City might be better suited to take over Southwood Park's water.
By all accounts, Kubischta has pretty much run the water district by himself for the better part of two decades due to a lack of interest from others — or a lack of communication depending on who you ask — in serving on the board.
Over the past year, officials including former City Councilor Jeff Gudman, Councilor John LaMotte, Planning Director Scot Siegel, Lake Oswego Police Department Chief Dale Jorgensen and other City staff have worked with the Southwood Park Community Planning Organization to educate residents on how being annexed would affect them in terms of water rates, property taxes and services they would gain.
"One of the reasons (Kubischta) approached us is he was stepping down," Gudman said. "He's done an unbelievable service to Southwood serving as chair for so long, but over the last several years, they've struggled to get people on the water board."
Kubischta could not be reached for comment.
The City outlined a deal that would bring the 298 homes in Southwood Park into Lake Oswego on three conditions: to maintain the current water rates for five years, with only inflation adjustments, and then phase in the city water rates in years six through ten; to connect Southwood Park to the City water system within a period of five years; and to phase in the property tax increase for Southwood Park property owners over a period of five years.
On Jan. 28, the Southwood Park Water District voted in favor of annexation. Just two weeks later, the CPO voted overwhelmingly, 84-45, to initiate annexation proceedings, but due to the county's bylaws around CPOs, only those who had attended one of the group's previous meetings over the past 12 months were allowed to vote.
Many residents feel that annexing would bring higher taxes without any real benefit.
According to Southwood Park resident Jim Hilker, there aren't any services the City is offering that residents don't have access to already, and by annexing, they're just creating bigger tax and utility bills for people — some of whom are seniors on fixed budgets.
"Our neighborhood before all this started was the best kept secret in all of the metro area," Hilker said. "It's this quiet little place where most people knew it was unincorporated when they bought their homes. It's this cool little enclave where nothing happens."
For Hilker, the benefit of LOPD patrols and hooking up to City's water system don't outweigh the cost.
That undisturbed atmosphere has changed dramatically as the special election has drawn closer, with fireworks exploding on the social media site Nextdoor and in public at neighborhood meetings.
On June 4, Hilker and others attended a public hearing at a meeting of the Lake Oswego City Council to oppose the idea of annexation. It was a marathon meeting with nearly three hours of testimony, but Hilker and his camp feel the City Council didn't actually listen.
"I'm very worried that if this passes it's going to force costs on people who cannot afford it," he said. "A simple majority can make this happen, and it could make for some really unhappy future LO residents."
In the months leading up to the election, Hilker, newly elected water board chair K.C. Rogers and others banded together to get the message out to their fellow residents to vote against annexation. They created a website with information regarding property taxes and water rates. They've also been active on Nextdoor.
According to Rogers, the neighborhood's water system is in such disrepair due to gross mismanagement on the part of Kubischta and the former water board. He says that the "if it breaks, fix it" mentality of the water board went too far and now they're in a position where they have to catch up.
"There's so much deferred maintenance it's not even funny," Rogers said. "Everyone praised Phil for his years of service, and I did too, until I found out how much of a mess it is."
According to an analysis Kubischta presented to both the CPO and the City of Lake Oswego, the system requires major updates that could cost between $1.5 and $2 million, one of the main reasons he approached the City about annexation in the first place.
But Rogers and Hilker believe that the neighborhood and the water district are fine on their own, and they're looking at the future as if the annexation vote won't move forward, meaning they'd have a lot of work and major costs in front of them to get their water system back where it needs to be.
For now they're focusing on making sure their message is loud and clear: vote no on annexation.
But some residents on the pro-annexation side of the debate have accused Rogers and Hilker's camp of waging a strategic misinformation campaign intended to confuse voters into voting against annexation.
According to longtime Southwood Park resident Diane Daybreak, the rhetoric on social media has gotten out of hand and devolved into personal attacks. The question of annexation has pushed the neighborhood into a war of words.
"I would say divisive is an understatement," Daybreak said. "I've seen people who support annexation receive obscene treatment. A lot of the people who favor annexation have to be very careful about what they say because they're afraid of being attacked."
Daybreak said she's been the victim of some of these attacks, including comments aimed at trying to humiliate her for her gardening choices, as well as telling her that if she favors annexation, she should move.
"I don't know if the neighborhood could ever be the same, it's so severe," she said.
Southwood Park resident Elise White said that the amount of different "factual" information being spread around is extremely confusing, and those who speak up to clarify are quickly drowned out of the conversation.
"Unfortunately those who have spoken up with different points of view or other facts, I guess you could say, tend to get the brunt of things," she said. "At the end of the day people are going to vote how they want. The most important thing is getting factual information out to the voters, but only the loudest voices are being heard."
As of Wednesday, the Clackamas County Elections Division was reporting 44 percent voter turnout, with 255 of the 579 registered voters in Southwood Park having already cast their ballots. With just four days until ballots are officially due, residents in the area are sure to continue lobbying their neighbors on both sides of an issue that could have impacts which reverberate in this neighborhood for decades to come. The election only needs a simple majority of 50.5 percent for annexation to move forward.
Hilker and Rogers refute both Daybreak and White's assertions that they're attempting to mislead and say they've been attacked as well, being called liars for putting out information on their website and Nextdoor.
"(They) interpret it as libel and false information, continuing to post things calling us liars. I can't say my feelings aren't hurt," Hilker said. "The pro-annexation people are using the exact same links to documents and figures that we are."
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