Assisted by planners, Oregon City developers skirt new code
Oregon City's mayor and city commissioners took city planning staff to task this week for alerting developers about forthcoming emergency code amendments so homebuilders could propose subdivisions without being subject to new requirements intended to promote public safety.
Oregon City Commissioner Denyse McGriff said she was "dismayed" by the situation. Expedited development brought to mind landslides forcing the evacuation of apartment buildings in late 2015, at a 125-unit, low-income project that city officials believe never should have been approved for construction in the 1990s.
"My concern is not only for the current residents who have been asking us to try to resolve this particular issue and make changes, and also our future residents so they are in a position that they are protected," McGriff said.
Mayor Rachel Lyles Smith said the city staff took the commission by surprise, since commissioners had intended to provide higher standards for new development, only to have city staff members encourage developers to rush in applications that will skirt the new codes.
The city commission unanimously passed emergency development code revisions July 21 requiring underground utilities, sewer standards and policies relating to sidewalk obstructions. Code now references the new landslide guide, while setting new construction specifications and retaining wall standards.
However, at the eleventh hour, Icon Construction was among the developers who submitted applications on July 21 ahead of the new requirements, after receiving a call from Oregon City Community Development Director Laura Terway. Icon's master plan has proposed 257 homes in OC's Park Place neighborhood, where the development will have only two outlets, a half-block street called Winston, and the new extension road.
Laura Pastore, who lives near Icon's proposed development, said it took her family about a half-hour, for a typical five-minute drive, to get from Winston/Holcomb to Redland during last year's wildfire evacuations.
"Is Icon and Oregon City willing to be responsible for loss of life by knowingly proceeding with development without proper egress first?" Pastore asked. "Loss of life would be inevitable if a high-level evacuation were issued at this point in time. Why increase the odds? Some of our neighbors gave up when the exit time increased to an hour or more."
City Commissioner Frank O'Donnell pointed out a tension between the developer "client base" and the "citizens of our community," the latter which he felt should have priority.
"I was unaware that it was our practice to call up applicants and make them aware of a forthcoming change," O'Donnell said. "We undertook this in the interest of what we felt was protecting the community."
O'Donnell asked whether it was possible to call for a moratorium on development when the city is considering future emergency code changes. Oregon City's attorney responded that moratoriums are possible, but not easy.
O'Donnell asked whether it was necessary for the planning department to alert developers about pending code changes. While neither necessary nor illegal to alert developers, OC's attorney said it might look bad in court for the city if a developer upset over code changes sued. O'Donnell responded that he was willing to risk that possibility, saying it looked a lot worse for the city's own staff to be hamstringing the commission's efforts.
Icon developers and their engineers recently met with the Park Place Neighborhood Association, but the meeting ended in controversary when several of the Trail View neighbors argued over traffic and safety concerns.
Bob LaSalle, Park Place neighborhood land-use chair, was concerned that a proposed "emergency road" with a gate across it at Livesay Road would mean that all residents of the new development can only exit by going up and around residential streets through winding roads or a shortcut through Trail View.
Park Place developments have been controversial for decades. The 92-acre Park Place annexation, the largest addition to city limits in the history of Oregon City's ballot box, went down in defeat all three attempts, by 67% in 2008, 56% in 2010 and 62% in 2012.
In 2016, Gov. Kate Brown signed into law a bypass of city requirements for voter approval of property annexations in 34 cities, including Oregon City. Although the city of Corvallis and the League of Oregon Cities challenged the constitutionality of the law in court, Oregon City's elected officials at the time decided to stay out of the lawsuit and begin to approve annexations without voter approval.
Icon's proposal will face future Oregon City Planning Commission hearings to determine whether the development meets the previous city codes in place before July 21.
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