Hillsdale neighbors fear development would mar neighborhood
Hillsdale residents are rallying against a proposal to build a single-family house in an environmental overlay zone.
Interlock Investments LLC, a real estate investment company that owns an empty, landlocked lot at 5540 Southwest Menefee Drive in the city's west hills, hopes to build a three-story, 2,600-square foot home down slope from an existing house, overlooking a steep wooded canyon.
If built, the house would boast modern architecture, including a façade marked by expansive windows and a combination of cement and metal siding. Nearby homeowners say it would also mark the first home to be built on a lot they thought would remain undeveloped, natural habitat in perpetuity.
On a drizzly afternoon in March, neighbors shuffled carefully around the soggy soil where the new home would be built into the hillside. Some grabbed on to trees to keep from losing footing and tumbling down the hill.
"We moved to this street 20 years ago and were told this is a non-developable green space," Renee Limon said.
Limon and others who live nearby said they're bothered by the idea that a home could be built in an area most consider a scenic, wildlife corridor. Property owners said they try to preserve the forested area and sometimes remove invasive plant species from the land often inhabited with birds, coyotes and deer.
The site has limited access because of its hillside geography. Land use notices indicate the new property would share a driveway with the house in front of it, via an easement agreement. The driveway would transition into a raised platform as it connects to the new house and its attached garage, according to city land use documents.
Alex Flikkema, owner of Interlock Investments, did not respond to requests for comment.
The city has yet to issue any building permits for the home. While neighbors said they fear the city will green-light the residential development, Flikkema's investment firm has some major hurdles to overcome.
The undeveloped lot is one of several that sits behind the block of existing high-dollar homes. It sits in an environmental overlay, meaning any construction must meet extra environmental standards and zoning criteria to minimize disturbance to its surroundings. It also overlooks Terwilliger Boulevard, putting it in a design overlay zone with its own, separate criteria for building.
"In this case, the proposed work doesn't meet all the standards," a city land use notice states, noting the current building footprint would disturb too large of an area within the environmental overlay and require a second layer of review.
"We were shocked and disappointed," Bill Berg said when the development application first came to the city. "It seems completely incompatible to build a home back here."
In addition to environmental concerns, Berg and his neighbors say they fear the home would be susceptible to a slide, recounting the horrific floods of 1996 and resulting landslides that plagued the Portland Metro region over a three-day period in February of that year.
Another catastrophic landslide took place in 2008, about a mile and a half from the proposed construction site, on Southwest Burlingame Place. In that case, a home slid down, crashing into and destroying other homes, displacing several families. Homeowners in that case were dismayed to find their insurance policies didn't cover landslides, news reports noted.
The hillside slope means rainwater would run downhill toward the new property. To combat that, stormwater would be captured, stored in tanks and pumped up to a combined sewer system on Menefee Drive, according to plans submitted by Joe Karman Architects.
Developing the site would add to the inventory of high-value homes on the block. While the raw land is valued at just $8,700, property records show one home directly in front of the lot is valued at $953,000. The home next door sold for $1.4 million in 2018.
Despite the two overlay zones and extra scrutiny required for a building permit, that doesn't mean the project isn't feasible.
"We are evaluating the approval criteria and evaluating what would it take to approve a development in this overlay zone," said Ken Ray, public information officer for Portland's Bureau of Development Services.
Contrary to what the adjacent property owners thought, Ray noted environmental conservation overlay zones "do allow for environmentally sensitive development."
"There's a variety of factors we look at in city code when a development is proposed in an environmental overlay zone," Ray said. "There's a number of criteria it has to meet. That's not to say development can't happen."
The Hillsdale Neighborhood Association cautioned the city against granting construction approval.
"In order to understand the neighborhood's universal negative reaction to this proposal you need to look at the context and development patterns of this long-established iconic hillside neighborhood," a letter from the neighborhood group's land use chair, Glenn Bridger, and president, Tatiana Lifshitz, states. "Clearly pushing the development into the greenspace behind the houses is completely out of context for the neighborhood and would set and aims to open the sensitive environmental area to development contrary to existing pertinent criteria, the (Terwilliger) parkway criteria and the neighborhood's pristine native habitat."
The neighborhood association also took issue with the city's consideration of a waiver for setback requirements on the south side of the property and the home's "in your face" design concept and placement.
Friends of Terwilliger, a volunteer group dedicated to preserving Terwilliger Parkway, has also come out opposed to the project.
In a letter to the Bureau of Development Services, the group posits the proposed construction doesn't align with Terwilliger Parkway design guidelines.
"It is bad policy to approve a structure that is shoehorned into a sensitive site such as this, and that encroaches into the environmental resource area in a design zone intended to protect the natural and scenic resources of a scenic and historic city park," the letter states. "Moreover, approval will set a bad precedent for other nearby hillside properties with the same zoning and proximity directly above Terwilliger Parkway."
Joe Karman Architects, the company that submitted the building request on behalf of Interlock Investments, could not provide additional details about plans to mitigate design and encroachment concerns, except to confirm the land use application was still under review by the city.
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