Property owners map out a new route to building

• Measure 37 law viewed as easier to navigate than city permit process

The first six Portland property owners filing Measure 37 claims have different motives, different issues and different problems to resolve.

But they have one thing in common: the expectation that Measure 37 will provide a faster, cheaper or perhaps more lucrative alternative to the city's heavily regulated permit process.

'I was thinking it might be a way to make it happen a little easier,' said Aaron McDuffie, who filed a Measure 37 claim for a house he hopes to remodel on Southwest Boones Ferry Road.

Are they right? They won't know for a while, but their claims show a complex mix of motives, ambitions and regulations that will have to be sorted out one by one.

Oregon voters passed Measure 37 in November. Under the new law, property owners who can show that a land-use regulation reduced their property value can get a waiver of the rule or money making up for the lost property value. Six property owners have filed claims with the city of Portland since the measure went into effect Dec. 2.

But there is no real system yet in place to handle the claims. The City Council hasn't approved its administrative ground rules. Court rulings, local ordinances, legislative action and perhaps even another ballot measure may all be brought to bear before the bureaucratic dust settles.

Exactly what Measure 37 will mean to the building and permit process remains uncertain, said Ethan Seltzer, professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University and vice president of the Portland Planning Commission. But he said it won't instantly erase the bureaucratic miseries of the land-use system.

'If they're filing claims thinking it's a path developing what they want to do any way they want to do it, they're really mistaken,' Seltzer said. 'Measure 37 is a request to be compensated or to waive a regulation. But waiving a regulation doesn't waive the permitting process, the things that protect health and safety.'

Seltzer said Portland probably won't see as many Measure 37 claims as other parts of the state, in part because there's less undeveloped land in the city than in rural areas.

'The value of city property is such that in the end, you're hard-pressed to show city property values aren't already as high as they're going to be,' Seltzer said.

Lawsuits also are possible

Of the first six Portland claims, five involve residential properties and one, industrial land. Many of the applicants were in discussions with the city about their plans before the measure passed.

Ruth Pruitt, for example, was negotiating for a permit to develop a half acre on 3 1/2 acres of industrial land she owns in the 14300 block of Northeast Whitaker Way. The rest of the parcel would have to stay undeveloped under city mandates, she said. But once Measure 37 passed, she halted her talks with the city, thinking it could give her the right to develop more than just the half acre.

'I told them to stop,' Pruitt said. 'Thought I'd try with Measure 37 to get my value.'

She also has suggested the city resolve her claim by trading some of her property for adjacent city-owned land.

One applicant sees his Measure 37 claim as a step toward a possible lawsuit. Gary Dye wants to build a 3,000- to 3,500-square-foot house with a yard and a three-car garage on his lot at Southeast Lexington Street near 120th Place. The city, he said, limits the total disruption to the 16,000-square-foot lot to 5,000 square feet, and, with other land preservation restrictions, that won't leave him enough developable land to put in a yard.

'I'm giving them a warning,' Dye said. 'I'm telling them what my plan will be when I go to court. We should talk and try to settle out of court. If not, we get our lawyers.'

In calculating his loss of value, he included $10,000 for the 'pain, suffering and anxiety I have endured.'

Last summer, McDuffie spoke with city planners about subdividing the Boones Ferry Road lot to allow three houses. But his only interest now is in remodeling the 1950 ranch house that was owned by his aunt until last year. He doesn't plan any major changes, mostly just an expansion of the kitchen and mudroom.

The site is covered by city environmental rules aimed at protecting Tryon Creek, which flows through the lot, and at preserving the woods. It's also in a 100-year-flood plain, a further complication.

At first, McDuffie thought Measure 37 offered an easier path to his plans. Now he's not so sure and is considering whether to withdraw his Measure 37 claim and resume his talks with the city.

'It looks like a big hassle,' he said. 'These things can get expensive and time-consuming even in the simplest of cases. I don't want to get caught up in all the technicalities.'

Council takes up measure

The City Council plans to take up Measure 37 regulations in a Jan. 25 work session. No discussions have taken place yet as to where city government would get the money to reimburse property owners for lost value.

Commissioner Sam Adams said he wants to see four elements considered in the city plan:

• Posting of claims on the city Web site and informing neighbors within three city blocks of the proposed project

• Processing fees that will weed out gratuitous claims but that are not so high as to be punitive or vindictive

• Some method to pay the fees for low-income applicants, an idea he credited to state Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland

• A way for neighbors to take legal action if a claim reduces their property value

Adams also would like to see a way of classifying property improvements made under Measure 37 as a variance, not a voiding of the zoning or environmental protections. The variance should be transferable when the property is sold, but he wants to see all buyers agree to obey the zoning in place at the time of the sale.

'Measure 37 is a very crude instrument that was done out of frustration, and it reflects that,' Adams said. 'I want to be able to champion common-sense requests that are reasonable, and I want us to do as much as possible while retaining good city code.'

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