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The editor presents a pageant of planning: How the city dealt with a zoning request that broke all of its standards

COURTESY OF CITY OF PORTLAND - This close-up from a city map of the Westmoreland business property in question shows its previous zoning, and - in the diagonal line wandering down parallel to Oaks bluff, angling downward leftward through the entire property - the former landslide risk area which extends for fifty feet from both sides of that line. Read on to find out what has happened to that hazard zone, and why it was ignored. This story began months ago — with a request for a zoning change on a commercial property which stretches from S.E. Insley on the north to Reedway on the south, on the west side of Milwaukie Avenue. There are two-story business buildings there now, and a sizeable parking lot in the center of the property, facing the west end of Harold Street.

The property actually crosses over the Oaks Bottom bluff at the northwest corner, and the geologically-recognized landslide zone near the lip of the bluff affects much of the property.

The story starts with a request by the landowner to upzone this property to permit very high residential density — in the form of one or more apartment buildings which could soar as much as 75 feet high, right on the edge of Oaks Bottom, in a landslide zone.

There were several facts which took the neighborhood's objection to this zoning change well beyond any suspicion of it being a "NIMBY" issue — that stands for "not in my back yard". First, the zoning change, if the tentative City Council approval of the zoning change is confirmed as expected, would be the very first exception to the existing Portland "Comprehensive Plan Map" anywhere in the city.

Second, Oaks Bottom is more than just a wilderness area — it is also a unique city wildlife reserve, administered by Portland Parks & Recreation. It's a protected part of the city.

Third, there is that landslide zone — which is more than just theoretical. As the writer of a Letter to the Editor pointed out in our May issue: On March 25, 2011, following two inches of rain having fallen on the last day of February, "There were several landslides along the bluff overlooking Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge. One slide endangered a house [just one block from this property]. The trail at Oaks Bottom, the Springwater Trail, and the feeder trail to and from the parking lot on Milwaukie Avenue [at Mitchell Street] were all closed for some time. The entire slope below the house at 1433 S.E. Reedway was slipping away, and [eventually] the house had to be moved." She enclosed a photo — taken by THE BEE at the time. Another point was that the existing public transportation at the site was inadequate to meet the needs of such a large residential development, under the city's own rules. You would think that that alone would have ruled out making such a first-ever exception to the city's Comprehensive Plan Map for this location.

And, SMILE submitted an alternate plan in its testimony that would still permit an apartment development on that land and would not endanger any residents of apartments there the next time two inches of rain falls on the lip of the Oaks Bottom bluff! (If you think such rainfall seldom occurs, consider that 2.25 inches of rain fell on January 3rd of this year!) Oh, and at last count, there were 606 signatures on a petition asking the city to reject this application — and more have come in since.

But none of those facts and arguments, developed by the SMILE neighborhood association's Land Use Committee and adopted by the SMILE Board as testimony in this major rezoning case, apparently carried any weight with the city Hearings Officer, who sent it on to the City Council with a recommendation to approve the rezoning request as submitted, earlier this year. Nor did any of those facts and arguments apparently trouble the Portland City Council in giving its tentative approval of the plan by a vote of 4-0, with one Councilor absent. And those knowledgeable about the current form of city government here assure us that there is no chance at all that this decision will not be confirmed formally by this same City Council — it may already have been done by the time this issue of THE BEE reaches you.

We would be remiss, however, if we didn't add that the City Council, in its tentative approval, did impose two minor conditions and one significant condition on any development built there under this zoning change; the one significant condition was that any structure there could not exceed 65 feet in height, instead of the 75 feet that the zoning would normally allow. But you can still build six stories in your building with a 65 foot height limit.

Were these added conditions the result of concern about the landslide zone, and the possibility that a tall development on the edge of the Oaks Bottom bluff could be undermined by earth movement? No it was not. They were simply added as a nod to the adjacent Oaks Bottom, a public wildlife refuge.

So why did the landslide risks not enter into the approval process? The risks have been mapped and established by the Oregon Department of Geology, proven by history, and even were reflected in the city's previous "Z overlay" in the original Residential Infill Plan.

Well, here's a surprise: The Z overlay and the landslide zone, with their constraints, vanished from the city's updated Residential Infill Plan — and with no notice to the affected neighborhood associations about the change. Was it a simply a mistake made in the rewrite of the second RIP? Or could it possibly have been — dare we say it — done deliberately?

The important thing to be reminded of is that no matter what the city does or doesn't do in its paperwork, it cannot abolish the landslides themselves. They will take place even if they have been removed from the second Residential Infill Project. And not to include that danger in Portland's land use planning process is outrageous. David Schoellhamer, the extremely diligent and highly respected Chair of the SMILE Land Use Committee, says, "I am at a loss as to why a 100-foot-wide landslide zone has been removed. It's obviously a landslide zone."

He adds, about this entire proceeding at City Hall, "It's been an awful experience. The city has two different planning processes — one through the BPS, and one through BDS, and they don't seem very aligned… It was a dissatisfying process; a very disillusioning experience."

However, there is one more twist to this story we haven't mentioned. The owner of the property was not applying for the zoning change in order to actually build the new, tall apartment building that the new zoning allows.

In a neighborhood meeting on the proposal on January 20 of this year, Blaine Whitney, the representative of the zone change applicant, said, "We are not the developer on this. We're a group purchasing this land from the current owner, and working through this rezone process to try to capture some land value here. The land would eventually be sold to a developer in the future." Blaine is a partner in Columbia Capital Group. So it certainly seems as if the City of Portland went against its own Comprehensive Plan Map, and even against nature itself in the form of the landslide risk, simply as a friendly gesture to an investment group which simply wanted to make a bigger profit in a land resale.

How about that.

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