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UPDATE: New policy prioritizes land for affordable housing, other public projects

PORTLAND TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - The City Council is still grappling with fall out from the sale of this suprlus water tank in Southwest Portland in 2012.Three years after the Portland Water Bureau sparked a controversy by selling surplus Water Bureau property to a private developer, the City Council has changed its mind about the best uses for such parcels.

On Wednesday the council approved a citywide surplus property sale policy that prioritizes using unneeded parcels to meet community needs for affordable housing, community gardens and open spaces.

When the council first authorized the sale of the so-called Freeman Tank property in Southwest Portland in 2010, the goal was to obtain as much money as possible to help hold down water rate increases. But after Renaissance Homes bought the property two years later for $140,000, neighbors complained the land should have been preserved as open space instead.

The council now agrees, although it added other uses — affordable housing and community gardens — the policy, too.

The council first discussed the issue last week while considering a new policy governing the disposition of excess properties by city bureaus. The proposal would supersede surplus property policies adopted by the Portland Water Bureau and Bureau of

Environmental Services in the wake of the controversy of the sale of the unused water tank on Southwest Freeman Street.

During the discussion, Commissioner Dan Saltzman proposed that properties no longer needed by a city bureau should be prioritized for affordable housing, public benefits like community gardens, and open spaces. The majority of the council agreed and asked Saltzman to refine his amendment for consideration this week.

Testifying in support of Saltzman’s proposal, Oregon Opportunity Network Executive Director John Miller said Portland has an affordable housing crisis and land for such projects is getting harder to find.

“It doesn’t make any sense for the city to sell off land it already owns that can be used for affordable housing,” said Miller, whose organization advocates for low-income people.

Other witnesses wanted to make sure that existing community gardens be protected. A parcel owned by the water bureau currently is being used for part of the Johns Community Garden in North Portland — even though the community garden program is operated by Portland Parks & Recreation. The water bureau designated the parcel as surplus several months ago, prompting complaints from its users and neighborhood representatives. Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the water bureau, intervened and put the process for disposing of it on hold while the council discusses the best way to handle such “mismatched” properties.

“I’m a strong supporter of community gardens,” said Fish, who noted the number of community gardens had doubled when he was in charge of the parks bureau.

According to the proposed policies, bureaus are to review their properties to determine if any are not needed to carry out their responsibilities. Unneeded properties can be designated as “excess” by bureau directors and the commissioners in charge of the bureaus. If that happens, the properties are to be offered to other bureaus. If no other bureau wants them, the council can declare them surplus and sell them to other parties. Neighborhood and other community groups must be notified at each step in the process.

The council approved the new policy unanimously, although Commissioner Steve Novick was absent.

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