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Controversial annexation now in the hands of voters

Debate highlights growing conflict between city, developer
by: contributed map, The Sandy Bluff neighborhood.

Citizens routinely and lukewarmly approve about a half-dozen requests by property owners to annex into the city of Sandy every year without much controversy.

But there's nothing lukewarm or routine about one such measure on the March 13 ballot, as evidenced by the vigorous debate that has taken place on The Post's opinion page.

Voters will decide whether to allow the 4-J Land Development Company to bring more than 22 acres into the city limits - a decision that has sparked a heated debate over the future of the Sandy Bluff neighborhood.

The annexation itself - which would add an estimated 136 homes to the northwest Sandy area, bringing the total number of homes in the 96-acre Bluff district to just fewer than 500 - isn't the source of the controversy. Almost a decade of friction between a developer and the city of Sandy has come to a head in this vote.

The Sandy Bluff neighborhood has been in the works since 1998, starting with all the homes between Bluff Road and Jewelberry Avenue, and Indian Summer Street and Emerald Cascade Street. Since then, 4-J - a division of the J. Frank Schmidt Nursery - has added two phases to the project, and is working on three more, not including land inside the proposed Kampa Lane annexation.

Great American Development Company has developed two Sandy Bluff 'annexes' and is looking to add at least one more. The common denominator in all cases is lead developer Joe Spaziani, who has fought some of the city's land-use decisions in court and at the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.

Opponents of the annexation say they're afraid Spaziani and company would contest the city's minimum lot size requirements, should voters allow the land into the city. Proponents of the annexation say it would improve the quality of life for Bluff residents by adding much-needed collector streets, open space and family-friendly, affordable houses.

How big should lots be?

At the heart of the debate between Spaziani and the city is a disagreement over lot sizes. According to Mayor Linda Malone the city dropped its minimum lot size restrictions in the 1990s because developers complained that they had to cut down trees and destroy other natural elements in order to comply.

The city instead altered its development code to allow 2 to 6 dwellings per acre in the single family residential zone and 5 to 10 in the R-1 zone.

'We said OK, be creative,' Malone said. 'But what most people did - especially Spaziani and other builders - was that they took the size of the land, divided it by the highest number and squeezed as much as they could in (to the land). They didn't use creative means to save land features.'

After hearing complaints about the tightly squeezed homes in the new Cascadia Village and Sandy Bluff neighborhoods, the City

Council voted to reinstate minimum lot sizes, setting the minimum lot size in the R-1 zone at 5,500 square feet - or 3 to 10 units per acre - and 7,500 square feet in single family residential - or 2 to 6 units per acre.

Just hours before the new sizes were to take effect, 4-J submitted eleventh-hour applications on its Sandy Bluff Phases 4, 5 and 6, which will bring 177 additional homes.

In Phases 4 and 5, most of the lots are 3,000 square feet, where the minimum lot size would have been 5,000 square feet. In Phase 6, lots measured at around 5,000 square feet each, which would have been short 500 square feet if they were under the lot size restrictions. Of the 38 homes in Phase 6, only 11 would comply with current zoning standards. City Planning Director Tracy Brown said he didn't think any of the Phase 4 and 5 houses would have complied.

The close proximity of the houses and the narrow streets of the neighborhood were criticized early last year when the May family's home mysteriously exploded on Penny Avenue in the Bluff subdivision. The fire damaged nearby houses and threatened the existence of the northwest portion of the neighborhood, while the narrow streets complicated firefighting efforts.

Besides the view that small houses on small lots are visually unappealing, city officials and annexation opponents have frequently cited the Penny Avenue explosion as one justification for larger minimum lot sizes in Sandy.

'When the house blew up, it damaged the house across the street and the two on either side,' said Goldenrain Street resident Rhonda Freeman. 'The same thing would happen (in any additional subdivisions), or worse.'

Appeals and more appeals

Thus far Spaziani has appealed city decisions on Sandy Bluff Phases 4 and 5 to the Land Use Board of Appeals due to what he says are unfair and illegal conditions, and he has hinted that he will appeal Phase 6. He took issue with the city's condition that required him to build 40-foot-wide lots.

'It's clear in the code you can have 30-foot-wide lots,' Spaziani said. 'We proposed 34 foot lots and reproposed 38-foot lots, and the city said no, we require you to have 40-foot lots. When that goes to LUBA they'll get their heads handed to them. The state says that if you have a code you've got to apply that code.

'I'm perfectly willing to do whatever it says in Sandy Development Code,' Spaziani said. 'That's the question I always ask them: Is it in the code?'

He also took the city to court over an order to remove a house on blocks, and right after the City Council passed its minimum lot size restrictions in 2005, 4-J appealed the decision to LUBA.

When the state board finally addressed 4-J's appeal fall 2005, it issued a remand to the city, meaning that the city must present some additional findings to justify its lot regulations. The City Council is scheduled to adopt the new findings at its March 19 meeting.

In the meantime, the city and 4-J disagree on whether the minimum lot size restrictions are still in effect. The city says they are and 4-J believes they are suspended until LUBA approves them.

Spaziani also hinted that although the Kampa Lane property would be the first development that would outright fall under the new lot size restrictions, they would fight having to adhere to those rules.

The legal costs to the city have amounted in the 'tens of thousands,' City Manager Scott Lazenby said, noting that as of January, the city was $20,000 over its 2005-07 budget for legal fees.

So why is 4-J fighting City Hall so much? 'Because we have the audacity, I guess, to question their authority in certain areas,' Spaziani said. 'Sandy is the only municipality I've dealt with that basically tries to design your house for you - minutiae about where you have to have the streets, where you have to have the front of the house, the front door, the sidewalk. It's ridiculous. I'm just kind of disappointed at the way we've been demonized for our position on these things.'

Code problems

Spaziani says that while he understands the city's aversion to small lots, it's Sandy's own fault for allowing him the opportunity in its development code.

'We don't create the lot sizes,' he said. 'What we go by is in the code.'

He says that, despite lot size restrictions, he's allowed to build 10 homes per acre in the R-1 zone because the development code says so.

'They complain about having tiny houses on tiny lots,' Spaziani said. 'So if you don't want that, then change your densities (in the code). Now that (the city's densities) are showing up on the ground, people in the city are getting very upset about it.'

But Brown says the city hasn't had resistance to the minimum lot sizes anywhere near the degree that Spaziani has shown.

'Our belief is that we have minimum lot sizes, they're valid, and it's what we require people to do,' he said. 'The majority of applicants don't even question it. We certainly haven't seen anything close to (4-J) in terms of the extent of appeals and resistance.'

Bluff Road resident Kathleen Walker, a member of the city Parks Committee and one of the more vocal opponents of the annexation, said that the city needs to tidy its development code to make it 'appeal-proof' from Spaziani and other developers.

'There's a whole long laundry list of operational problems that need to be changed - housekeeping things. The minimum lot size is the first one.'

Until the development code is safe from legal challenge, Walker said, 'I don't want to annex in any more of Spaziani's developments.'

Effects

Opponents of the annexation argue that the addition of 136 more homes in the Sandy Bluff area would squeeze many unattractive, tiny houses into an area already suffering from traffic problems, and would complicate some of the city's existing problems.

'We're going to need more police, fire, water, not to mention the badly needed schools,' said Greg Becker, who has a 'vote no' sign at his home on the corner of Bluff Road and Kelso Road. 'We're at maximum capacity now. Everything about this is going to cost us.'

'Sandy is a family-based town,' added Goldenrain Street resident Frank Richards. 'A lot of us have kids in school. We all know what's going on now and what's going to happen if another (163) homes come in.'

Spaziani and 4-J say the annexation wouldn't hurt Sandy's livability - it would actually help it. He said the annexation would alleviate the Bluff neighborhood's bottleneck problems by providing and helping to pay for an extension of Jewelberry Avenue to Kelso Road over the annexed property, which would reduce traffic from Green Mountain Street by 308 trips and from Bluff Road by 500 trips a day.

'If the annexation gets turned down, then I think that project's in jeopardy,' Spaziani said. 'Why would we be asked to pay for that road? We wouldn't get any benefit out of it whatsoever. We could just leave it as it is.'

The city maintains that conditions of approval for Phases 4, 5 and 6 included a provision for extension of Jewelberry Street and Bell Street. 'He's already been required to finish the road,' Malone said, noting that to say this annexation is tied to construction of that road is false.

According to 4-J, 20 percent of the annexed land would be dedicated to open space. Spaziani admits most of that land would be underneath the Bonneville Power Administration's large power cables, but says the location of the open space is irrelevant.

'There's a lot of land underneath those power lines,' Spaziani said. 'Does that make it any less open space?'

People shouldn't worry about the density and the lot sizes of the new houses, Spaziani said, noting that the annexed property would look 'a lot like what's in Phases 1, 2 and 3 now' - the existing Sandy Bluff neighborhood. 'What we'll see in the next annexation will actually be larger lots than what's been approved in Phases 4, 5 and 6.'

Sandy residents may submit their ballots by mail or may drop them off at the box outside City Hall, 39250 Pioneer Blvd. or inside the Sandy Public Library, at 38980 Proctor Blvd. Ballots must be received by the county elections division or deposited in a drop box by 8 p.m. Tuesday, March 13.