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State smacks down city land rule

LUBA says city was wrong to define age as a 'disability'

The Lake Oswego City Council goofed when it approved construction of a senior housing facility in the Waluga neighborhood, a state land use board has ruled.

In paving the way for Oakridge Park - a four-story, 45-unit complex for low-income seniors - the city council drafted language that defined people 62 and older as disabled for the purposes of certain housing types.

Now, state officials say the city must fix it.

Oakridge Park was approved for development by the city's Development Review Commission in October 2007.

The Waluga Neighborhood Association appealed that decision to the city council in January, expressing concerns about the building's size and potential for parking problems on the site. Plans for the complex include 20 parking spaces for up to 90 occupants.

The city council gave the nonprofit Northwest Housing Alternatives flexibility on development criteria, including parking, because the building would mostly house senior citizens.

That flexibility is allowed for local developments that can be defined as 'congregate housing' in the city's code. The developments serve disabled people that 'have life-function disabilities due to age, medical, or mental condition.'

In approving Oakridge Park's development, however, the city council ruled that 'age itself (of a certain age) is a life-function disability' and was a qualifying criterion for 'congregate housing.'

In May, the Waluga Neighborhood Association appealed the decision to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, the state's highest authority on land use decisions.

The neighborhood association argued the city could not define elderly people as disabled in order to waive development criteria.

On Wednesday, the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals agreed.

'What LUBA is saying is that the city misapplied the municipal code. Age, medical or mental conditions can cause a disability but age in of itself is not a life-function disability,' said Kevin Luby, attorney for the Waluga Neighborhood Association.

Residents in the neighborhood expressed relief at the decision. Throughout appeals of the development, they say they have been painted as hostile to affordable housing and to senior citizens.

'We've never said that and I think they are using that as a ploy to get people to start taking sides,' said Cheryl Uchida, a member of the board of directors of the Waluga Neighborhood Association.

'If you take a look at our neighborhood, it's pretty diverse already. Our neighborhood wouldn't be opposed to something like that.'

Uchida said the neighborhood's concerns have always been related to the development's lack of parking and how less parking space increased its size.

Martha McLennan, executive director of Northwest Housing Alternatives, indicated that concerns over parking are over-stated.

Though Oakridge Park may house as many as 90 occupants in 45 units, senior housing typically rents to single occupants, McLennan said. With apartments targeting seniors in their mid- to upper-70s, few who dwell there will drive, McLennan said, especially as they continue to age.

The nonprofit group remains committed to the project. McLennan said its organizers are disappointed and confused about the state's decision.

'It's a technical issue that they remanded and it's one that kind of makes my head spin,' McLennan said.

She said she didn't understand why the word 'age' would appear in the city's definition of the 'congregate housing' if it couldn't be used as a criteria.

Now 16 months into the land use process, Oakridge Park will face further delay and possibly miss deadlines with public and private financers, McLennan said. She said she was confident the project's funders would stick by Oakridge Park.

'It's good to remember that the troubled economy is making it even harder for seniors to find safe, affordable and stable places to live. It just makes it all the more important to the community,' McLennan said.

Evan Boone, deputy city attorney for the city of Lake Oswego, said city officials would meet early next week to decide how to respond to the state's decision.