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Homes or Habitat?

Environmentalist Steve Berliner wants to build six homes on the Finley property in Jennings Lodge. Neighbors are worried about the 18 homes he must include in his plan in order to gain approval.
by: Anthony Roberts, A portion of the land slated for development in Jennings Lodge. Phase I deals with the former Finley property. Neighbors are upset about the project’s densely packed second phase, which could be built on the property pictured. The developer said he has no immediate plans to pursue the second phase.

Residents in the Jennings Lodge neighborhood are concerned that a development being planned by a prominent local environmentalist could be more harmful to the area than anticipated.

Milwaukie resident Steve Berliner plans to build up to six single-family homes on large lots on the former Finley family property off of S.E. Hull Avenue, about a quarter-mile behind Jennings Lodge Elementary School. Neighbors are concerned because in order to build those homes, he must design a plan that shows an additional 18-unit cluster on the northeast corner of the property. In addition to the possible loss of large conifer trees, neighbors say those houses, which could potentially be townhouse style units, would bring an influx of traffic the neighborhood's narrow streets can't handle.

Berliner says he has no choice but to show the homes, which are labeled as 'Phase II,' on the plans he submitted to Clackamas County, even though he has no intentions to build them. The additional homes are sketched in to show that he can meet the county's density requirements - rules designed to create tightly packed development closer to the region's urban center. But neighbors fear that once the 18 smaller homes are approved, anything could happen.

An eye toward open space

Berliner admitted that he's experiencing a different side of the development process. He has reviewed development and analyzed its environmental impact as a member of the Friends of Kellogg and Mount Scott Creeks Watershed, on the county's Surface Water Management Citizen Advisory Committee, on the county's Complete Communities Environmental Implementation subcommittee, and with other organizations.

He leads birding tours of the development site, which he purchased in May 2007. He's spent the past eight months doing manual restoration on the site, clearing three invasive plant species. Berliner is bringing on a green building firm to construct the homes and is working with an attorney who specializes on green CC and Rs - covenants, conditions and restrictions - that will prevent new homeowners from cutting down certain trees and restrict invasive plants. The historic Finley home will remain.

Berliner is fighting a county requirement to build a road that would cut through the property, connecting S.E. Jewett Drive to Hull, and connecting Phase I and Phase II. Berliner wants a short, private road jutting northward from Hull to accommodate the Phase I homes, and shows a small dead-end road off of Jewett Drive that would serve Phase II, if it is ever built.

Opposition to plan

There has been minimal opposition to the large single-family homes, but neighbors are adamantly opposed to the 18-home cluster. Mike Swyter, who chairs the Community Planning Organization in the area, said more than two dozen people showed up for a monthly meeting to discuss the issue - the meetings are typically sparsely attended.

'I think the [large-lot] units that he has proposed are just tremendous,' Swyter said, 'but the 18 other ones are kind of an issue.'

Swyter said he's aware there is uncertainty over what will happen with Phase II of the project, but noted that CPOs are required to review plans as written.

Britteny Asher, who lives in the neighborhood, echoed Swyter's statements. She said some development on the site is 'understandable,' and likes what Berliner is doing to maintain open space in Phase I. Asher sent a letter to a number of environmental organizations proposing that they purchase the Phase II land to maintain it as a preserve, and there has been some interest in the concept. Asher also pointed out that while Berliner has no intention of building Phase II, the future is uncertain.

'Once the plan is approved he can do anything he wants,' she said.

Density requirements

It's possible the debate over the development would have never occurred without Clackamas County's density requirements. Berliner pointed out that without the densely packed Phase II, he would have to show 18 separate lots on Phase I's 10 acres, rather than seven, leaving little room for open space.

'I had been confused about [density requirements] along with all the rest of the community for so long,' Berliner said. 'It is rather difficult to understand the process until you delve into it.'

The area's minimum density requirements were established when regional governing body Metro passed its 2040 Growth Concept Plan in 1995. The idea is to keep growth clustered around urban areas and plan for an influx of people - a predicted 1 million by 2030.

According to Rick McIntire, a senior planner with Clackamas County, Berliner would have been forced to show even more homes on his plan before last year. That's when Metro made changes to its minimum density requirements.

'Previous to this, the minimum density would have been significantly higher,' McIntire said. He added that Berliner has reduced the density 'to as low as it can get.'

'Phase II needs to be part of the application that we approve. Whether they ever build Phase II is another question,' he said. 'I'd be surprised if Phase II gets built anytime soon.'

Berliner has said as much.

'Phase II is shown, it's sometimes called shadow-plotted or master planned, solely to show that the development can meet the required minimum density at sometime in the future,' Berliner said. 'We do not plan to sell that off for devlepoment or develop it ourselves.'