Communication breakdown frustrates planning commission, park board nearly a year after initial approval of plan

When West Linn Parks and Recreation Advisory Board member Vicki Handy testified at a joint City Council and Planning Commission work session Tuesday, Feb. 19, it was ostensibly to provide feedback on a long-delayed update of the West Linn Parks, Recreation and Open Space Master Plan.

But Handy's emotional speech to the council and planning commission focused primarily on a breakdown in process that left the plan — which was scheduled to be approved last year — in limbo. Carrying a copy of the City's guidelines for civil discourse, Handy said it was time for the council, planning commission and other community members to start honoring those principles.

"After years of volunteering with the city, for the first time I just want to exit," Handy said. "Because it's so difficult."

The master plan — which was last updated in 2007 — is intended to lay out the 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; a draft plan was then crafted with seven primary goals. Those goals ranged from increasing opportunities for river recreation, re-imagining indoor recreation opportunities (including the possible addition of a large, centralized indoor community center) and improving connectivity and accessibility throughout the parks system.

Generally, the master plan process starts with the parks advisory board. Once City staff and the board complete a draft, it moves to the planning commission and — if approved — goes to the council for adoption.

The planning commission approved the plan unanimously in May 2018, with one significant caveat that the plan should acknowledge the importance of "local satellite community centers" like Robinwood Station. The parks advisory board did not share the commission's enthusiasm for smaller satellite centers, and it was at that point when things began to fall apart.

Rather than voting on the plan during a public hearing last June, the City Council decided to continue the hearing at a later date after staff made changes that could be reviewed informally by both the planning commission and parks board. But it wasn't until December that the planning commission reviewed an updated plan, and again voted to approve it — this time with two changes. The commission said all references to an aquatic center should be removed from the plan, while asking for the addition of funding recommendations for possible renovations at the old Bolton Fire Station, Robinwood Station and Sunset Fire Hall.

Handy made clear that she was not speaking on behalf of the entire parks board during her testimony, but she felt that the board was left on the sidelines throughout the process.

"All we wanted to do was collaborate on what's going to happen," she said. "More than anything, what we truly need is a collaborative discussion … not led by (consultants) or special interests, but led by the planning commission or City Council with the parks board present."

Handy was also frustrated with what she viewed as increasingly hostile discourse surrounding the plan.

"At planning commission (meetings), it has been allowed to have citizens attack our staff members, calling them liars, criminals," she said. "It's becoming very difficult to have collaborative dialogue."

Planning commissioners, meanwhile, wondered why there was so little activity throughout the second half of 2018.

"I think the breakdown was a misunderstanding of process," said City Councilor Bill Relyea, who was on the planning commission last year. "Typically you bring a plan to the planning commission, the planning commission reviews it and then it's up to the party that owns the plan to take a redlined plan to the council, along with the version they originally proposed … for some reason that never occurred."

Moving forward, the council hopes to garner more feedback from both the advisory board and planning commission before holding another work session to discuss the plan.

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