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Darby Ridge appeal could have ripple effect

If subdivision is denied, it could pave way for livable development in rest of city, development's opponents say
by: Carole Archer, Paul Masulis, left, and Craig Smith stand on Masulis’ deck overlooking the 1,000-foot Gabbert Butte. Both men are against clear cutting the butte for the proposed Darby Ridge subdivision and would prefer the city of Gresham and Metro preserve it as open space.

Gresham city councilors have the chance to set land-use precedent Tuesday, Oct. 17, when they decide whether to allow a developer to build 82 high-end homes on a steeply sloped butte in Southeast Gresham.

Despite staff's recommendation to approve Darby Ridge - located on 38 acres at Southwest Gabbert Road west of Southwest Miller Drive, or roughly northwest of Butler and Regner roads - planning commissioners unanimously denied the application last month by a 4-0 vote.

Two commissioners were out of town. One cited a conflict of interest, because he's developing nearby property. Another commissioner recused himself from the vote.

Originally proposed as a 68-lot subdivision in May 2004, the number of lots later increased to 85, a move neighbors say packs as many houses onto the land as possible.

However, in August, developer Wellner-Morey Gresham I, LLC, removed three lots that neighbors vehemently objected to, reducing the number of total houses to 82.

Planning Commissioner Kathy Hinton said that during a third hearing, the developer even proposed reducing the lots to 70, but the process was too far along for such a change.

Neighbors in Summit Estates to the east and Fairway Heights to the south object to the development, which resident Craig Smith calls an 82-unit flag lot. Quoting Planning Commissioner Joy Gannett, Smith pointed out that planned developments such as Darby Ridge are supposed to be designed to accommodate hillsides, not make the hillside accommodate the development.

Darby Ridge calls for reshaping more than 40 percent of the hill by regrading and applying as much as 30 feet of fill to make extremely steep slopes buildable.

'That's insane,' Smith said, adding that planning commissioners did the right thing by rejecting the application.

Senior Assistant City Attorney David Ris, while walking city councilors through the 731-page appeal document on Tuesday, Oct. 10, warned them that planning commissioners 'made interpretations that varied from previous ones.'

That's no surprise given the land-use histories of three new planning commissioners. Kathy Hinton, Stephanie Nystrom and Allan Lazo bring a neighborhood livability perspective to the commission, having rallied for infill standards and against infill and/or hillside developments, such as Kelly Creek Meadows, Deer Glen and a proposed lock-down treatment facility for mentally ill prison inmates.

Now councilors must carefully consider the effects their decisions could have on future code interpretations, said Ed Gallagher, director of Gresham's department of community development.

If councilors uphold the planning commission's denial, 'these issues become city policy,' Gallagher said.

For example, should a street be allowed in open space? Should plans for future streets come complete with information on grading and clearing to prove the road is topographically feasible?

'For future projects it will set precedent,' Gallagher said.

Hinton contends it's high time for new precedents.

Gresham is on the verge of developing huge swaths of acreage in Springwater and Pleasant Valley. 'This is a turning point,' Hinton said. '… If we don't take a stand now, developers will continue to build on hillsides.'

If it takes a little heat to make positive development changes, Smith says bring it on.

Otherwise, 'We're gonna be Happy Valley,' Smith said, referring to huge houses on tiny lots in neighborhoods along Sunnyside Road. 'If we don't get on top of it, nobody will want to live in Gresham anymore.'

If you go

What: Gresham city councilors will consider a developer's appeal of the planning commission's denial of Darby Ridge, an 82-lot subdivision on Gabbert Hill in Southwest Gresham.

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 17.

Where: Gresham council chambers, 1333 N.W. Eastman Parkway.