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Northwest Portland residents rebel against garbage bins

Neighborhood pushes city to enforce new rules on containers
by: Nick Fochtman, A man walks by a pair of commercial garbage bins on the sidewalk in front of Blue Moon Tavern in Northwest Portland. The Northwest Neighborhood District has been working with the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability to make it harder for businesses to get away with leaving their bins in the right of way.

For Tanya March, walking her 5- year-old to school at the Metropolitan Learning Center on Northwest Glisan Street was nauseating. Pregnant with her second child, March tried walking around the commercial garbage bins crowding the walkway between her house and the school.

Five years later, March says she is still waiting for the sidewalk garbage bins to be removed.

"I see them every day. I'm not a casual observer of them," March says. "We want our neighborhood to be somewhere people really want to be."

March isn't the only one who feels this way.

For over a decade, the Northwest Portland Neighborhood Association has worked with city officials to enforce the city code prohibiting businesses from leaving the large garbage bins in the right of way on sidewalks. Now, the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability has developed a new set of rules that will supposedly allow city investigators to get tough with businesses that refuse to move their dumping containers. But the neighborhood association still isn't sure the new rules are strict enough.

The problem of garbage in the right of way has plagued the community for a century, says longtime neighborhood association member Dan Anderson. He says there are newspaper references to the same problem as far back as 1905.

"The city has a really difficult history on this," Anderson says. "It has a problem with attention span and follow through."

The Portland City Council passed a resolution in 2005 that created a task force to examine the issue. In 2008, new city code explicitly banned containers in the right of way. The code did allow for businesses to apply for up to two years of exemptions if moving the garbage bins would create an extreme financial hardship.

The problem? The city code never set clear guidelines for those exemptions.

Anderson says the city's proposed changes are long overdue.

"There is no rule. Anyone can claim a hardship and because that's undefined, the rule goes unenforced," he says.

The issue isn't limited to Northwest Portland. Cricket Café on Southeast Belmont Street is just one example of a business claiming a hardship, even though neighbors say the placement of their containers has created a blight.

Neighborhood resident Nick Maly says he's seen rodents in and around the Cricket Café bins. He says he has complained to the city about Cricket Café multiple times.

"It's altered how people have used the sidewalk," Maly says. "It's not always that great to see rats and such hanging out at the Dumpster."

Dan Bartkowski, owner of Cricket Café, is also frustrated. Bartkowski rents the café space and shares the garbage bins with other tenants. The building itself is old, and Bartkowski says he has nowhere to move the bins indoors.

"It's not only a financial hardship, but a placement hardship," Bartkowski says.

Bartkowski says the city has contacted him about the garbage bins and told him he could keep them outside. He says he wants to fix the problem by moving the containers to a nearby property, and he's talked to city officials, but that they never responded to his proposed solution.

"This was a very viable idea." Bartkowski says. "It would involve getting another property to relinquish some of their space, but it seemed very applicable."

Kevin Veaudry Casaus, solid waste and recycling senior coordinator for the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, says he personally never saw Bartkowski's plan, but he would support it.

"We would work with them if that is going to bring about a solution," Veaudry Casaus says.

He says Cricket Café is one of the rare situations where a case against an obstructive container has not been resolved. He says about 75 percent of problem garbage bins have been moved after the city received complaints. Many businesses chose to bring the containers indoors or to partner with another business to find an alternative space, he adds.

Right now, there are 19 open cases, and Veaudry Casaus hopes the new rules bolster the bureau's enforcement abilities.

"Currently there is nothing in our rules that let us really require a resolution," Veaudry Casaus says. "Once these new rules are adopted, then we will actually be able to set a deadline for resolving the violation."

If approved by the City Council on June 6, the new rules will require businesses to prove they need the exemption. For example, a business will have to document that it has tried every possible option and explain why none of them will work. Also, the business will have to submit three years of federal tax returns to confirm financial hardship.

But the neighborhood association's Anderson thinks the new rules are still too vague. For instance, he says, the new rules don't count cash savings when a business owner applies for a hardship exemption.

Armstrong is hopeful the proposed rules will at least be a step in the right direction.

"I think we will come out of this with a process and a set of rules," Armstrong says. "We will move forward and try to take care of the remaining cases."