Developer sues Oregon City for delay in approving cottage cluster
Oregon City is being sued by one of its own Planning Commission members who tried to complete construction on a cottage-cluster development that the city determined had violated conditions of permitting approval to build five homes.
Oregon City's attorney wrote that the developer "deviated significantly from the approved design, and what he built did not match what he said he would build."
Christopher Staggs, the cottage-cluster developer who was appointed in 2020 to the city's Planning Commission by now-recalled Mayor Dan Holladay, filed the lawsuit in Clackamas County Circuit Court last month, saying the city violated a statewide rule to make final permitting decisions on completed building applications within a 120-day timeframe. On March 23, Oregon City's Historic Review Board (HRB) voted unanimously to approve Stagg's application with conditions, finding that many of the elements of the partially constructed homes still met design guidelines, even though they were not consistent with the original plans approved in 2017.
"The discrepancies noted by the city planning are in large part, based on conditions of approval that do not match the HRB conditions and approval of the project, and we believe the homes as they are built, are in compliance with the historic standards and historic intent," Staggs wrote in his latest application.
Mayor Rachel Lyles said Staggs' applications led to a "tough" decision for the City Commission.
"There's definitely pieces in here that I know that certain commissioners didn't agree with everything, but we do things by consensus," Lyles Smith said.
City commissioners agreed with the HRB that the texture of the siding as built by Staggs was artificial and not consistent with the historic character of the Canemah district's design guidelines calling for the appearance of wood. Commissioners also mandated that Staggs replace windows and remove skylights visible from the street.
City Commission Denyse McGriff, who previously worked for the city's planning department, said she hadn't seen such a "difficult application" in her entire career.
"Oregon City's history is very important to all of us… We have obligations. We want to work with people, and this in no way indicates that we are anti-development," McGriff said. "I don't take any pleasure in this, but we were kind of put in an awkward position."
Oregon legislators created the 120-day deadline for cities to make land-use decisions, because state lawmakers wanted to require local governments to make decisions in a timely fashion, Oregon City attorney Bill Kabeiseman wrote to the circuit court in a 15-page reply to Staggs' attorney. Oregon City "made its decision in a timely fashion," Kabeiseman wrote, when the City Commission reached a conclusion on June 2, although that meant the city was a day late in mailing out its approval document.
Kabeiseman said that Oregon law provides a "grace period" for a cities after they make land-use decisions. As long as these decisions are followed by a final written decision within 14 days, there is no basis for an applicant to file a lawsuit, Kabeiseman wrote.
In 2016 and 2017, Staggs submitted his original applications to construct the cottage development. HRB's original decision was appealed by Friends of Canemah, but the HRB's decision was upheld by the City Commission. Friends of Canemah took the commission's decision to the Land Use Board of Appeals, which upheld the city's decisions.
In 2018, the city issued building permits, but informed the Staggs that a site visit by planning staff was needed after framing was constructed. Staggs completed framing, roofing siding and window installation in late 2020, when the city's interim inspection identified a number of discrepancies between the approved building plans and the constructed dwellings.
Oregon City issued a stop-work order until Staggs either modified the homes to comply with approved designs or secured a modification of the 2017 approval. In February of this year, Staggs filed an application seeking modification of the 2017 approval to approve the homes as constructed, arguing that, as built, the project satisfied Oregon City design guidelines.
Circuit Judge Ulanda L. Watkins has scheduled an Aug. 9 hearing on the city's request to dismiss Staggs' case.
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