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Warehouse? Social service agency? Environmentalists worry that developer Jordan Schnitzer will chop down a three-acre swath of trees meant as a buffer between the jail site and Smith and Bybee lakes

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - Environmentalists fear that developer Jordan Schnitzer will demolish the former Wapato jail building and chop down a three-acre swath of trees that buffer the site from nearby Smith and Bybee lakes. From left, Bob Sallinger, Dale Svart and Troy Clark check out Bybee Lake that sits just on the other side of the Wapato property.

As Dale Svart gazes out the window of his North Portland home, he has a lovely view of Smith Lake, where he enjoys birding, kayaking and hiking.

Just beyond that — behind a 40-foot-wide belt of trees — lies one of the biggest boondoggles in Portland history, the ill-fated Wapato Jail that was completed but never opened, costing Multnomah County taxpayers more than $100 million.

Svart and other environmentalists worry that developer Jordan Schnitzer, who bought the Wapato property last year, has taken out a demolition permit to level the jail and chop down the 3,200-foot-long tree buffer that separates Wapato and the Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area.

"I have to pay the city a fee to remove a tree from my lot and, depending on the size of the tree, the fee increases," said Svart, a board member of the Friends of Smith and Bybee Lakes.

But because Wapato sits in an industrial zone, any developer could take down all the trees he or she wants, with no fees or restrictions.

Dodging the rules

When Svart's buddy Troy Clark visited the wetlands area on a recent Tuesday, he counted 49 species of birds and saw some otter. There's a heron rookery there, deers are common, and sometimes coyotes and beavers are spotted.

Clark was on the original jail-siting committee years ago, and helped secure a Good Neighbor Agreement back in 2001 and a City Council requirement to plant the tree buffer. "I told the county I don't really care what you build; make it invisible to the lakes," he said.

But if Schnitzer's Harsch Investment Properties takes down the jail to build a warehouse, that condition becomes moot.

Because the demolition permit was issued, "those trees can be cut down at any time," said Bob Sallinger, conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland. Smith and Bybee lakes are "one of our premier natural areas," right in the heart of an urban area, Sallinger said. "So much work has gone into restoring them."

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - A heron hangs out on a tree branch outside the Wapato property in North Portland.

The three-acre belt of trees is mostly Douglas fir, some of them 25 to 30 feet high, plus cedar and madrone.

The trees provide a visual barrier for the wildlife, and will make it more enjoyable once a major hiking and biking trail is added there, to become part of the "40-mile loop" envisioned by the Olmstead Brothers a century ago.

"It's going to be heavily used, eventually," Clark said.

When the city of Portland adopted its rigorous tree code in 2011, it exempted industrial properties in the 11th hour, Sallinger said. At the time, the city was hard-pressed to meet state and regional requirements to provide enough industrial land for future employment, he said, so the city exempted industrial land from the code to minimize opposition.

"This is a really stark example of what can happen," he said.

But the city subsequently found a way to meet the industrial lands requirement, Sallinger said, and promised to revisit the issue if that occurred. So far it hasn't.

"We would really like the city to take the tree code and apply it on industrial lands; it's long overdue," Sallinger said.

Metro, the regional government that manages the Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area, also is concerned about removal of the trees.

"Trees create buffers between industrial areas and natural areas, reducing the impacts of light and sound, and helping filter rain and stormwater runoff," said Dan Moeller, Metro conservation program director. "It's all part of a larger system, and we're worried about how the loss of habitat and reduced water quality, as well as increased light and sound nearby, could impact Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area."

So far, Schnitzer has been noncommittal and declined to respond to environmentalists's calls for a sit-down meeting. That's making them more fearful the warehouse project is a done deal.

The site is close to a huge new Amazon warehouse, Svart said, and one operated by Columbia Sportswear.

But when contacted recently about the demolition and tree issue, Schnitzer said he's "not there yet," because he's got other priorities.

"I would love to build a warehouse there," Schnitzer admitted. But "it's breaking my heart," he said, to think of tearing the jail site down.

PORTLAND TRIBUNE: JONATHAN HOUSE - From left, Troy Clark, Dale Svart and Bob Sallinger stand outside of Wapato. They hope that the owner will not cut down the trees that ring the property.

Innovative proposal

Schnitzer, who owns one of the biggest Portland-based real estate empires and is one of Oregon's most active civic volunteers and philanthropists, said he wants to exhaust every opportunity he can to reuse the site before he agrees to do what his company does best: build warehouses.

"Right now, our full attention has been to get some group to focus on repurposing Wapato," he said.

Schnitzer has talked to fellow developer and civic volunteer Homer Williams about using the site for a major homeless center. Nothing came of it.

He talked to a Lane County group that also works with homeless people. He's talked to Native American groups, to Catholic, Episcopalian and Jewish organizations. Nothing has worked out.

Every month the property sits vacant costs him $50,000, and Schnitzer figures he's out $600,000 so far.

In the past few weeks, Schnitzer has been working on a proposal he sees has great potential: A drug and alcohol rehabilitation center for seniors run by Volunteers of America. (See related story)

Schnitzer sang the praises of the group's chief executive Kay Toran.

But if that doesn't work out, Schnitzer said he's running out of options short of leveling the building.

"If she can't pull it out, I don't know where else to go," he said.

You can read a related Portland Tribune story here.

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