New Athey Creek Middle School gets conditional go-ahead
The West Linn-Wilsonville School District's plans for a new Athey Creek Middle School will move forward after an appeal of the West Linn Planning Commission's approval of the project failed due to a West Linn City Council stalemate.
The council heard the appeal from the Willamette Neighborhood Association Monday, Oct. 4. Though Monday's meeting lasted seven hours, the council was forced to continue the hearing to Thursday, Oct. 7. At Thursday's continuation, the middle school plans moved forward after a motion to accept the appeal and deny the conditional use application for the development of the school failed on a 2-2 vote.
"I want to thank the applicant and appellant for their work," Councilor Todd Jones said. "In all sincerity, my experience with you these past few days has made me proud as a government teacher because you've done exactly what we hoped you'd do."
Bill Monahan from the city attorney's office explained that according to city code regarding appeals to City Council, a tied vote means the original decision by the body that first heard the matter — in this case the Planning Commission's approval with three conditions — stands.
The tie vote came after the council issued a no confidence vote regarding the impartiality of Mayor Jules Walters, meaning she couldn't vote on the matter.
The new middle school, which was part of the West Linn-Wilsonville School District's Capital Improvement Plan and capital bond in November 2019, will hold 850 staff and students and sit on a 22-acre parcel of district property between Dollar Street and Willamette Falls Drive. Plans for the site include two parking lots, a turf track and field and outdoor learning areas.
A condition of approval stipulated by the Planning Commission will ensure that an extension of Brandon Place, which would connect Willamette Falls Drive and Dollar Street near the school, will only be accessible to emergency vehicles.
The Brandon Place connection, which is part of the city's Transportation System Plan, was a sticking point for both planning commission members and councilors who posited that allowing use by the general public would turn Dollar Street, now a dead-end neighborhood road, into a busy thoroughfare.
Left with only four voting members and struggling to come to consensus regarding the school as a whole — as well as its safety, traffic and broader community implications — the remaining members of council made several motions regarding the appeal that failed.
In attempt to address some of the concerns raised by the appellants, City Councilor Mary Baumgardner moved to approve the school with three new conditions of approval: reducing the school's maximum occupancy from 850 students and staff to 650, requiring smaller school busses and moving the site of the building to the location of the track and field in the initial proposal. Baumgardner's motion failed 4-0.
Councilor Todd Jones eventually made a motion of his own to deny the appeal and accept the application as well as remove the commission's condition of approval to close the Brandon Place connection to the public.
Councilor Rory Bialostosky stated that opening Brandon Place to through traffic would generate hundreds of additional trips per day on Dollar Street, and would thus violate city code regarding traffic on neighborhood streets.
Jones' motion also died, leading Bialostosky to make a motion of his own.
Bialostosky moved to uphold the appeal and deny the district's application. Jones and Council President Bill Relyea voted "no" to Bialostosky's motion, forcing the tie.
With the failure of the Willamette Neighborhood Association's appeal, the district can now move forward with its plans for the school. However, there is still time for another appeal to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.
District spokesman Andrew Kilstrom said that even if the decision were appealed to LUBA, work on the new school would move forward. The project timeline, Kilstrom said, was still on track, with the new Athey Creek and new Arts & Technology High School still expected to open in 2023.
"It's what the district has always done," Kilstrom said about moving forward with school construction despite the risk that a legal challenge could succeed.
Part of the district's motivation to move Athey Creek Middle School to the Dollar Street site is the plan to move Arts & Technology High School to the current Athey Creek building. The district will lose its lease on the current Art Tech space next year and Art Tech students are now attending Wilsonville High School.
Mayor's impartiality challenged
Though Walters' impartiality to hear the matter was also challenged on Monday and the other four members unanimously expressed confidence in her ability to decide on the matter without bias, information presented Thursday by former City Councilor Teri Cummings swayed Bialostosky, Baumgardner and Relyea. Jones was the only one to maintain his vote of confidence in Walters.
Cummings' challenges to Walters' impartiality stemmed from the mayor's prior work with the school district — specifically, her work with the West Linn-Wilsonville Education Foundation, WLWV Superintendent Search Committee, WLWV School Safety Advisory Committee and 2019 Capital Bond Summit — and statements made in her 2020 mayoral campaign.
Bialostosky said it was the language from Walters' campaign website regarding the Dollar Street school that changed his mind.
Under the "My vision" page of Julesforwestlinn.com, a section on schools states: "New middle school site: WLWV has owned the Dollar Street property for a long time. They have welcomed public input at the 2019 bond summit, established a long-range planning committee and a bond measure that won by the largest margin ever.
"The district engaged the public extensively and is incorporating public concerns into the design."
This was the language that troubled Cummings, Bialostosky, Baumgardner and Relyea.
"This is a very awkward and difficult decision, but I would vote to accept the challenge based on this new information I was not aware of," Bialostosky said.
As she did on Monday, Walters said she would decide on the matter based only on the applicable criteria and information presented.
"I do not feel like I have any conflict of interest or challenges to my being impartial on this matter," Walters said. "I will do my duty and decide this matter based on what has been presented."
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