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Foes get another shot in reservoir squabble

Park-reservoir supporters plan last-ditch pleas to leave water uncovered

Depending on who's doing the talking, the city's five open reservoirs are either historic treasures that should be preserved or simple containers of drinking water that should be made less vulnerable to terrorists.

To retired attorney Jeff Boly, the reservoirs in Mount Tabor and Washington parks 'are a part of our heritage which should be passed on to future generations.'

To city Commissioner Randy Leonard, the open reservoirs are a tempting target for terrorists: 'People drink this water, and it needs to be protected.'

The City Council took the side of caution last May. Still grappling with how to respond to the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the council authorized the Portland Bureau of Water Works to bury the open reservoirs, beginning with the three open reservoirs at Mount Tabor Park.

At the time, the council thought that many, if not most, Portlanders were aware of the decision. The project had been approved by the Portland Utilities Review Board, the citizen watchdog group that advises the council on utility rate issues. Council approval came after a public hearing on the water bureau budget and included a 6.7 percent rate increase to fund the $65.5 million project.

But during the next few months, more and more people began to complain that they weren't given the opportunity to address the issue before approval. Both the Mount Tabor and Arlington Heights neighborhood associations passed resolutions protesting the vote, and a citizens group called Friends of the Reservoirs asked the council to go back to the drawing board.

'The council needs to start all over again, and not burying the reservoirs has to be one of the options,' said Charles Heying, a Portland State University professor who is part of the group.

Concerned about the growing protests, city Commissioner Jim Francesconi asked the council to hold another, more highly publicized hearing on the project. In a Dec. 17 letter to the council, Francesconi said: 'At its core, the decision reflects how the city makes important choices about the infrastructure that affects our citizens. And up to this point, they have not had the opportunity to speak to the council directly.'

The council has responded with a rare evening hearing on the project set for 6 p.m. Wednesday.

'I felt that we had made the decision in an open, public manner. But I understand that a lot of people were not aware of it at the time, so I'm very supportive of holding a forum so we can bring closure to the issue,' Mayor Vera Katz said.

Since the hearing was announced, the opponents have spent days lining up their arguments against the project. They are prepared to argue that covering the reservoirs is an overreaction that will destroy historic landmarks and ruin the beauty of two city parks. Boly also will argue that the project violates city zoning and land use codes designed to preserve Portland parks.

At this point, however, the council appears poised to reaffirm its support for the project. Commissioners Erik Sten and Dan Saltzman join Katz and Leonard in saying the project is necessary to safeguard the city's water supply. Only Francesconi says the opponents might be able to change his mind.

'I based my decision on the information I had at the time. If there's more information to be considered, I want to hear it,' Francesconi said.

Facilities need attention

Sten said he understands why people are so concerned about the project.

'It's expensive, it will change the look of their neighborhoods, and it concerns public health,' said Sten, who was in charge of the water bureau when the council approved the project.

At the same time, Sten said the city must do something with the reservoirs soon because they are old and in need of repair. They're also vulnerable to terrorists Ñ a reality the council had to face after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

'I'm really sold that we need to replace the reservoirs,' he said.

When it approved the project, the council authorized the water bureau to work with Portland Parks & Recreation to redevelop the top of the reservoirs and the land around them. In Mount Tabor, this amounts to a 50-acre parcel that includes the two terraced levels where the reservoirs are located. The borders of the Washington Park site have yet to be defined.

The council approved $2 million for this part of the project. It also called for the appointment of a 13-member public advisory committee to solicit ideas from the public and help refine them into workable proposals. The committee is chaired by Chet Orloff, the former Oregon Historical Society director who now is working on numerous projects related to Portland history.

Since the committee was appointed in October, it has reviewed the original plans prepared for the park and held several meetings to hear what people think should go on top of and unite the existing reservoirs. One emerging idea is to create a waterfall linking the two levels holding the reservoirs. The concept was included in the original plans for the park and was dubbed 'The Cascades.'

While the committee will not finalize its guidelines for the design until Thursday, it already has convinced the water bureau to increase its budget to $10 million. The additional money has pushed the water rate increase to 8 percent.

Public outreach missing

Francesconi is convinced that the committee can develop a proposal that will improve the overall beauty and utility of the parks. But he is afraid the committee's work is being overshadowed by the lingering controversy over the original vote and project.

'The public process is stymied by the lack of information about why the original decision was made,' Francesconi said.

Paul Leistner, chairman of the Mount Tabor Neighborhood Association, said many park patrons and nearby residents are fuming over what they see as a short-circuited public process.

'There wasn't much information available at the time, and most people didn't even know it had happened,' he said.

Leistner said many area residents first learned of the project when Orloff's committee contacted them to ask what should go on top of the buried reservoirs.

'At that point, their reaction was, 'When was that approved?' ' he said.

According to Leistner, the council's unexpected vote contrasts with a lengthy public process that resulted in the Mount Tabor Park Master Plan in 1998. The Portland parks bureau worked with a group of 27 community members for more than a year to produce the plan, which is intended to guide the use, management and development of the park for the next 20 years.

'The Mount Tabor Master Plan is an example of what works,' said Leistner, adding that it did not call for burying the reservoirs.

Moot exercise suspected

Given that the council already approved the project, some opponents worry that the council will just be going through the motions Wednesday night.

They may be right. As far as Katz is concerned, the only decision left to be made is what goes on top of the buried reservoirs. 'I'm willing to debate the aesthetic decision,' she said.

The opponents might have the final word, however. Under city code, even the smallest construction projects require permits that ensure they comply with all zoning and land use codes. Lawyer Boly is convinced that the project violates the codes and that any permit issued for the project can be challenged.

'They can't legally do what they want to do,' Boly said.

A consulting firm retained by the water bureau disagrees. A July 2002 memo prepared by Montgomery Watson Harza argued that the project complies with existing codes.

Boly dismisses the memo as politically motivated, however. Although Boly specialized in estate planning before retiring, his research has convinced him the consultant's arguments can be successfully challenged before the state Land Use Board of Appeals and the Oregon Court of Appeals.

'We are committed to seeing this all the way through,' he said.