Planning Commission will reconvene June 10 to consider permit application

by: MARK MILLER - Joe Christianson (left) speaks in opposition to development company S. St. Helens LLC's plans to level a basalt outcropping in north St. Helens, ostensibly to make way for residential development, at a St. Helens Planning Commission appeal hearing Tuesday, May 13.A public hearing for the St. Helens Planning Commission to consider a developer’s appeal of a decision last year that has held up plans to raze a basalt outcropping in north St. Helens ran late into the night Tuesday, May 13.

The council chambers at St. Helens City Hall were packed for the appeal hearing, which concerned S. St. Helens LLC’s application for a permit needed to proceed with the bluff removal project. Most of the attendees appeared to be community members opposed to the developer’s plans.

The hearing ran for so long — nearly five hours — that the commission opted to carry over the proceedings to its next meeting on June 10, instead of deliberating and coming to a decision Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning. But commissioners and members of the public heard from both City Planner Jacob Graichen, who denied S. St. Helens LLC’s application for a sensitive lands permit last summer, and representatives and prospective contractors of the development company, as well as a number of residents who spoke against the project.

Critics of the project allege the developer’s plans to remove the bluff in between North 10th and 12th streets, as well as 18 feet of dirt and rock underneath the rocky outcropping, are tantamount to a surface mining operation. The city of St. Helens prohibits mining within residential areas, and Graichen cited the ban in his decision to deny the permit last July.

Arguments for approval

Consultants for S. St. Helens LLC said the bluff must be removed to make way for streets and flat residential lots that could be attractive to homebuilders.

Keith Whisenhunt, a Salem-based engineering consultant, said it is impractical to build on the bluff and argued it must be removed in order for the land owned by S. St. Helens LLC to be developed.

“There is no other way to develop this property,” said Whisenhunt, showing graphic renderings of potential streets across the outcropping that he said would be virtually impossible to build to the required specifications.

Much of the applicant’s presentation, which was coordinated by Lake Oswego-based attorney Andrew Stamp, focused on what would be done to mitigate damage to the wetlands, which Graichen identified as a concern in denying the sensitive lands permit last year. The permit is needed because of the bluff’s proximity to wetlands, which are protected under development code.

John Schleining, a Medford resident who co-owned St. Helens construction company DeCal Custom Homes & Construction Inc. until it went out of business amid the economic recession last decade, said he has been trying to get the bluff property developed for more than 10 years. He urged the Planning Commission to concentrate on the wetlands issue rather than judging the entire project.

“Tonight, we’re here for approval of the sensitive lands permit,” Schleining said. “We’re not here tonight for a preliminary plat approval. We’re not here tonight for a zone change. We’re not here tonight to have our grading plan approved. There’s other forums that all those things will take place in.”

Schleining objected to the notion that the removal of the basalt bluff could constitute mining.

“There’s a very big difference between mining and getting a grading permit,” Schleining said. “I’ve never mined anything. I build lots. I build houses.”

Basalt is a hard rock with value as an industrial commodity. John Jersey — who owns the contracting firm that would likely be used to remove the bluff if the project goes ahead, John L. Jersey & Son Inc. in Scappoose — conceded that the basalt would be used to pay for the project.

“In order to make the project seriously viable, you have to have the reuse of this material, in one way or form that accommodates what the costs are going to be to do a site proposed on this kind of property,” Jersey said. “So we will be utilizing that material in one fashion or another down the road.”

Planning Commissioner Greg Cohen asked, “So you do admit that you will be benefiting from the gravel removal?”

“There will be a benefit,” Jersey confirmed. “No doubt about it.”

In response to questioning from Commissioner Kathryn Lawrence, Jersey said the bluff removal process would likely take up to 15 months, with blasting about once every week, crews working five or six days per week from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., and “constant” truck activity to haul away material and bring fill dirt to the site.

Vocal opposition from neighbors

About two and a half hours into the hearing, which began at 7:05 p.m., opponents of the application finally had an opportunity to speak.

St. Helens-based attorney Agnes Petersen, whose family owns the Tide Creek Rock quarry in Deer Island, spoke forcefully against the project.

“Don’t kid yourself. This is mining. Pure and simple, it’s mining. It’s mining because it is mining, and it’s mining because the law says it’s mining. And the whole point of this is to mine this property,” said Petersen, who represents two couples that own property at the bluff site. “This is kind of a ruse to say it’s for a subdivision.”

Petersen added, “My clients are against it, and I suspect everybody else in this room except the people who testified are against it. And of course, all of them, I’m sure, have an economic interest.”

Bill Holder, who lives near the bluff, agreed.

“It’s for lining people’s pockets,” said Holder.

Joe Christianson said he is a new resident of St. Helens who opposes what he characterized as an effort to change the city for the worse.

“You have a way out of this. You have a way to protect the citizens of this community, and you have a way to do the right thing,” Christianson told the commissioners. “What is absolutely obvious from [Petersen’s] testimony is that an inordinate amount of money is going to be made, with or without the fancy little development. Sometimes intent is lost in things, and sometimes intent is hidden in things.”

Sam Sarich, a Portland-area builder, purchased most of the bluff property in December 2012. Shortly thereafter, he transferred it to S. St. Helens LLC, a new development company for which he is listed as principal agent.

When the appeal hearing resumes June 10, the Planning Commission will have three options, according to Graichen: approve the permit application outright, approve the permit with conditions or deny the permit altogether.

The commission’s decision can be appe aled to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals in Salem.

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