Clackamas County commissioners balk at proposed 'restrictive' limitations on land use for auto businesses

PMG FILE PHOTO - Large apartment buildings are sprouting up along most of TriMet light-rail line to Milwaukie, but Clackamas County commissioners have yet to update zoning codes allowing car lots at the end of the line in Oak Grove.Clackamas County commissioners voted 4-1 on June 22 to take no further action on the Park Avenue Community Advisory Committee's recommendation to prohibit "auto-oriented" land use along McLoughlin Boulevard.

Launched in 2017, Park Avenue Community Project aimed to create a "vibrant, inclusive, affordable neighborhood" by updating land-use design and development standards, including limitations on car dealerships and other auto-oriented businesses.

While this planning effort for the Park Avenue area ended with an impasse, a separate county project could increase housing densities around urban areas like Park Avenue's light-rail station.  COURTESY PHOTO: TRIMET - An aerial view of the Park Avenue light-rail station shows nearby single-family residences, the park-and-ride garage and another large parking lot above it (top left).

Park Avenue planning sparked controversy between auto dealerships and groups who prefer the land be used for increased housing density, or for amenities such as parks and trails. Chair Tootie Smith questioned why there could not be coexistence between the two groups, adding that neither should have the right to deny the other.

Clackamas County's decision means that no zoning changes will result from the over $200,000 that has already been poured into the project thus far. The project was funded by a Metro 2040 Planning Development Grant of $180,000, with matching in-kind services from Clackamas County of $45,000.

County commissioners said they will listen to a future proposal once the community can come to an agreement. 

"If the community wants to get together, and frankly, start agreeing on it and quit expecting — I'm going to hope they're listening — quit expecting to fight, and then have mom and dad, being the five members of the Commission, try to figure out who's on first base, it's not going to happen," Smith said.

County Commissioner Sonya Fischer cast the lone no vote, instead expressing support for the option to prohibit auto-oriented land uses with the caveat that they provide exceptions for businesses that provide family-wage jobs. 

"We need to help this community plan. But we also need to support our family-wage jobs and businesses and not having over-regulation in their land-use planning," Fischer said.

Commissioner Mark Shull said any prohibition to auto-oriented land use would restrict "free enterprise" and asked county staff what would happen if those restrictive words were left out, leaving the free market to do what it wants.

Department of Transportation and Development Director Dan Johnson answered that a fundamental concern is that auto-oriented businesses "rack up moderate to large pieces of property for a long period of time and allow for little redevelopment potential" as opposed to chain businesses such as fast-food restaurants.

Long Range Planning Manager Karen Buehrig added that other light-rail stations in Clackamas County have similar restrictions for similar reasons.

Smith replied she doesn't understand why government continually wants to "clamp down" on land use for businesses.

Ultimately, the controversy among community groups was enough to sway the majority of the board to direct no further action.

"If we were to pass this to the Planning Commission, I don't know what the poor Planning Commission would even do," Smith said. "They would be inundated with the same dissension that we have been inundated with."

Fischer suggested approving the option to prohibit auto-oriented land use but telling the Planning Commission to include exceptions for the businesses that provide sustainable jobs, and to "encourage more community engagement to wrap this up."

But Smith didn't see a "clear consensus this board can take on a project that is this large" to move the Park Avenue planning forward.

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