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Measure 37 tenant battle surfaces in Stafford

Neighbors in the Stafford Basin are again feuding over property rights - this time fighting a decision that, if allowed to stand, may prove to be the first in Oregon extending Measure 37's reach to a tenant.

The decision by Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development gives Charles Hoff, who owns 53 acres at the intersection of South Rosemont Road and South Whitten Lane, a green light to subdivide the land into 104 lots.

It does so by allowing Hoff to date his interest in the property back to 1973, the year he entered into a contract to buy the land, though court records show he didn't actually own it until 1978.

Neighbors are challenging the decision in the Oregon Court of Appeals, throwing Stafford neighbors into another characteristic brawl over development.

In the Stafford Triangle - the rural swath bordered by West Linn, Lake Oswego and I-205, the prospect of development has brought 10 years of infighting over the prospect of dense housing and commercial development.

The dust finally settled last fall when residents voted to become the Stafford Hamlet, a county-supported form of self-government that can draft its own plans for the growth.

The hamlet looked, at least four months ago, like a means to lay conflict to rest. At its worst, directors on the hamlet's board hoped town halls - the first official one set for April 14 - would provide a forum to push Metro and Measure 37 to the fringe of Stafford's fate.

But so far, half of the 14 Measure 37 claims filed in the area have been approved, the rest are rolling forward.

'The best thing we can do is work hard on our plan (to chart growth),' said Carol Yamada, chair of the Stafford Hamlet.

'If people can be patient enough to see at least what's going on there, maybe they'll get some ideas about what they might do with their property and that could be a win-win for everybody,' she said.

As claims move ahead, it's not quite clear whether those approved will lead to development or simply serve as placeholders for the landowners who filed them.

Hoff intends to build fewer than 40 of the 104 homes allowed. He plans to begin in about a year. If Metro's Urban Growth Boundary nets his land in 2008 - the land sits on the border of West Linn - Hoff would be allowed to build more. Metro rules would encourage 10 units per acre.

'Why would your neighbor want to have 10 units per acre when they could have one or less per acre?' Hoff asked.

His neighbor David Adams, along with three other Stafford residents, is appealing the decision to the Oregon Court of Appeals on principle, he said.

Adams said he's concerned the state's reliance on the contract, rather than the recorded date of ownership, doesn't meet Measure 37's criteria for a claim.

Without copies of checks or other records, and no originals of the contract supplied, Adams said the situation is ripe for fraud.

'I think part of what we're standing up for now is process. We almost have to challenge this for the rest of the state because if we don't, it sets a precedent,' Adams said.

By law, Measure 37 allows anyone with an interest in property to seek compensation or waive land use restrictions that harm value.

Hoff's claim may set a precedent for others pending around the state.

His first $9.6 million claim was rejected because the zoning on his land hadn't changed since Hoff acquired title to it.

In this second try, however, Hoff got a pass from the ODLCD because he successfully argued he had an 'interest' in the land as a tenant.

In an affidavit, Hoff argued he began leasing the property in 1971, then renewed the lease. He entered into the first of a series of agreements to buy the land in 1973.

He produced a copy of a hand-written purchase contract, purportedly signed in a bowling alley in 1973. The claim is bolstered by affidavits from two former bowling buddies who say they saw Hoff sign the paper with former landowner Helen Pepoon.

Hoff said his intention has always been to develop the land. He is active with the Stafford Hamlet - he ran for the board of directors and served on the bylaw committee - but said he isn't willing to wait much longer for local leadership to answer questions about planning.

'I think by keeping my property at least rural, the way I'm planning it, it is a good transition. My property line is the city limits of West Linn,' he said.

Right now, he said, the land is unused. Though he once grazed animals there, he hasn't been able to build since the land was zoned exclusive farm use in 1979. He pays $8,500 in annual taxes for the hope of someday seeing returns on the investment.

'Measure 37, to a degree, has helped people like myself,' he said.

Without the law, Hoff said, the land 'just sits there. And I'm able to pay taxes on it.'

In Clackamas County, 1,052 claims have been filed under Measure 37 on 37,000 acres of land, according to the county's Web site. Should the claims develop at a rate of one household per acre, the Web site notes, Clackamas County's population would increase by 25 percent. Statistics compiled by Portland State University report $2.7 billion in asserted damages in Measure 37 claims in Clackamas County.