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Why urban renewal fires up the 70 percent

Community Soapbox by Les Poole

There are several controversies in the region that all involve one common ingredient: urban renewal investments, and how much money should be taken from property taxes to fund expensive developments.

A main financing source for urban renewal is tax increment financing, which allows some of our property tax money to be diverted away from police, fire and emergency medical services. (In Portland urban renewal now consumes 24 percent of the annual property tax revenue!) Urban renewal wouldn't be a problem if it were used in truly blighted areas, instead of as a tool for funding expensive light rail projects and public buildings.

The clear message from countywide citizens is that we are questioning how urban renewal is being used, given that hundreds of millions of dollars are involved. The passage of Measure 3-386 with over 70 percent approval should not have been a surprise to the county commissioners and staff.

Clearly we want to see less use of urban renewal, and no abuse of the concept. Closing of the Clackamas Town Center Urban Renewal Area should return the tax money to the schools and other services in the district.

It is my understanding that, in this case, the county intends to do the exact opposite by diverting $25 million to pay for construction of light rail through Milwaukie.

The cancellation of 'The Rivers' urban renewal project that featured a Cabela's store resulted in the recall of Oregon City Commissioner Jim Nicita on Dec. 6. Opposition to the project by Nicita and others was the issue behind his removal. I was troubled to see that thousands of dollars to the recall was donated by companies or individuals who have a financial stake in projects such as The Rivers. Its cancellation should reopen a conversation about what can be done to make the truly blighted former landfill a viable asset. The property is located by the Home Depot near the new Highway 213 interchange, and a lesser investment on a smaller project may be a reasonable alternative.

Regardless of that possible use of urban renewal, it makes a lot more sense than what's occurring in Gladstone and Oak Grove. A majority of the Gladstone city councilors and Mayor Byers approved a plan to build a large new library, heavily financed by converting an entire 10 acre open space site into an urban renewal district. In the meantime, the downtown area, where the taxes are generated, there will be little or no money for revitalization, and the library will be moved out to Webster Road.

The planners and supporters became overzealous with the scope of the project while turning a blind eye to the cost for building the facility. With the stroke of a pen in 2009 the Gladstone Nature Park site was suddenly converted into an urban renewal area. The developed property will not generate any tax income, and we shouldn't expect it to. Many of us now question why the 40,000 affected citizens weren't better informed when they approved the library district in 2008.

A group of local volunteers known as 'Save Gladstone' turned in about 500 signatures that will require a vote on projects exceeding $1 million. The planned Gladstone Library will cost over $10 million.

Expensive construction and maintenance costs for the library will be subsidized by closing the Oak Grove Library, and diverting its funding, (paid for by Oak Grove and Jenning's Lodge taxpayers) to a location on the east side of Gladstone. Oak Grove citizens concerned about light rail impacts and a poor economy also face losing their library.

The words 'urban renewal' have been dropped in the discussion by planners about high-density housing developments proposed for Park Avenue. The passage of Measure 3-386 now requires a vote before creating new urban renewal areas, and there's no reason to locate one in that neighborhood except to offset some of the negative light rail impacts. (Those include being a layover facility at the end of the line, and hosting a massive parking lot at a dangerous intersection south of Milwaukie's city limits.) A heated meeting was featured in an article in this newspaper on Nov. 23.

Measure 386 received over 70 percent voter approval, and the grassroots citizen's measure sent another clear message to local governments. We expect them to invest more cautiously, and rethink some of the zoning and limits on development that are mandated by Metro. This is not the time to follow Portland's poor economic example by making our county even more expensive and cumbersome for business and families. People are moving to Clackamas County to get away from those conditions.

Soon another strong message from the long silent middle class will be sent. Our local coalition will be circulating a petition requiring a public vote on the funding of light rail lines in Clackamas County.

The measure will also apply to the controversial Lake Oswego streetcar project. We citizens want the economy restored, and that means it's time to scale back government spending. Short-term jobs will not sustain us, and those paychecks will only come from borrowed dollars. Clackamas County can flourish if the cost of doing business and the ability to transport goods is maintained at an attractive level. One needn't be an economist to understand why so many companies have fled from Portland, and why we are saying no to 'Portland on the Clackamas.'

Les Poole is a resident of Oak Grove.