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Amid debate over city facilities, aquatic center, process delayed since May

West Linn's new Parks, Recreation and Open Space plan — which has been stuck in a municipal purgatory since it was conditionally approved by the West Linn Planning Commission in May — will soon arrive at the City Council's feet.

Council deliberations won't begin until early 2019, but at a Dec. 12 meeting the planning commission voted unanimously to approve two changes to the original plan: the removal of all references to an aquatic center and the addition of funding recommendations for possible renovations at the old Bolton Fire Station, the Robinwood Station and Sunset Fire Hall.

Staff will make those changes and present a new draft to the commission at a later date; with final approval from the commission, the plan could then move to the council.

"I think we've played with this long enough," Planning Commissioner Charles Matthews said.

Last updated in 2007, the plan will lay out the Parks and Recreation department's goals for the next 20 years, but is generally revisited every 10 years.

That process began in 2017 when the City issued a community survey that generated nearly 2,000 responses and informed the planning that was to come.

The draft plan featured seven primary goals, ranging from revitalizing West Linn's water recreational experiences to creating year-round "social hubs," re-imagining indoor recreation opportunities and improving connectivity and accessibility throughout the parks system.

In total, the plan outlined around $25.3 million in work at existing parks and $48 million for land acquisition, planning and development of new parks. The most significant long-term projects proposed in the plan were an indoor multipurpose recreation center and a new waterfront park.

The idea for an indoor recreation center was widely supported by the parks and recreation advisory board, but the planning commission feared such a plan would leave historic community buildings like Sunset Fire Hall, the old Bolton Fire Station and Robinwood Station behind.

When the planning commission signed off on the plan in May, it included a caveat that the document should be updated to acknowledge the importance of older "satellite centers" like the fire halls.

Some community members also spoke out against the idea of a centralized community center, while others were concerned about a possible indoor aquatic center being mentioned in the plan despite voters rejecting such a facility as recently as 2013.

The City Council opted not to consider the plan until these disputes were cleared up, and asked the planning commission to consider a possible solution developed by staff.

At the Dec. 12 meeting, Parks and Recreation Director Ken Worcester briefed commissioners on the idea of creating a separate "Public Facilities Plan" to address the debate over buildings like the old fire halls, thus allowing the parks plan to move forward separately.

"City facility needs are still pretty wide ... we haven't looked at a new public works building in a long time, even though it was recommended that we do so 10 years ago," Worcester said.

He added that a prior Public Facilities plan was last updated at the same time as the parks plan — in 1998.

"So both plans are due for a normal 20-year update," Worcester said.

Ultimately the planning commission wasn't interested in creating another plan.

"This facilities master plan may be kicking the can down the road and neglecting attention we asked for back in May for the (old) fire stations that serve individual communities," Matthews said.

"I don't know that I can support taking another six months to a year coming up with a facilities master plan while these other facilities that the community is interested in are being neglected or at least not funded to the extent they should be."

After hearing from several residents during public testimony, and noting their own concerns, commissioners also agreed that mentions of an indoor aquatic center shouldn't be part of the plan.

"I think the pool issue is dead in the water, as everyone has indicated," planning commission chair Gary Walvatne said.

Commissioner Jim Farrell expressed concern that the City might miss out on future opportunities to partner with other jurisdictions for a regional pool, but Worcester said that wasn't necessarily the case.

"By striking the word 'aquatics,' I don't think that ties anyone's hands in the future," Worcester said. "We'll be back in 10 years with another park master plan."

A survey conducted as part of the master planning process showed that an aquatic facility was highly polarizing.

Almost 50 percent of respondents said they would "definitely" support such a facility, but more than 10 percent said they would "definitely oppose" it (the highest percentage among the listed project proposals).

Staff will return with a final draft for the planning commission to approve, at which point the issue can officially move to City Council. Worcester said the tentative schedule calls for City Council hearings to begin in February.

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