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Steep slopes and glass houses

The Way I See It

Since I work in a profession that doesn't typically bill by the quarter-hour, let me offer some free advice to a guy who does:

If you're going to insult a group of people at a public forum, you might want to make sure one of them doesn't have a son who buys ink by the barrel.

Like many journalists, I've had the opportunity to listen to various people criticize my work and question my character in front of others. Last Monday night, however, was the first time I sat there while someone insulted my dad.

That's exactly what Bill Cox did. The lawyer for a developer who wants to put high-density homes along the banks of Gales Creek, Cox addressed the city council, first lighting into the city staff for withholding documents from him, then turning his ire on the adjacent property owners.

As I have disclosed in this newspaper on several occasions, my parents own a home next to the proposed development and have joined a group of neighbors who have organized against the project.

It presents an awkward situation for them, as well as me. For example, I've been privy to council discussions, held in executive sessions, that I can't share with them. And, I've never quoted my dad, a retired minister from the Chicago area, even though he has spoken eloquently in front of the city council and the planning commission, invoking both God and his beloved Cubs. (As someone who shares that sports affliction, I'll admit that I've often questioned the existence of the former based on the performance of the latter.)

On Monday, however, my dad left theology and baseball out of his remarks: he simply told the council that he felt the proliferation of high-density housing was jeopardizing the character of his adopted hometown and urged the elected officials to stick with the planning commission's recommendation to zone the lower half of the development site for single-family homes with large lots. His neighbors paraded to the microphone to make similar points.

It was too much for Bill Cox.

The lawyer, red-faced and ruffled, told the council that my dad and the other neighbors were a bunch of hypocrites.

Why? Because some of them, including my parents, have homes on large lots that are zoned to allow high-density development.

I agree with Cox that it's a fact that undermines the neighbors' arguments. And, I share his view that the neighbors' calls for an end to all high-density housing in the city are off-the-mark. Such housing is needed in Forest Grove, and elsewhere, to keep the Portland suburbs from sprawling onto farm and forest land. The problem is that nobody, including my parents, wants it in their back yard.

I even agree with Cox that this parcel's proximity to downtown and mass transit may make it a good candidate for such housing. But I think using the 'H-word' (as Cox called it) missed a larger point.

My parents didn't buy their house at the south end of D Street because it was zoned for high-density. (They didn't even know the zoning until Cox's crew pointed it out.)

Their property, and the area around it, was earmarked for high density development decades ago, when the cost of bringing city services to that parcel made development impractical.

But in the days of $300,000 starter homes, the project may be able to pencil out, and those long-forgotten color codes on the city map now have shocking relevance.

The question is not whether the city needs to accommodate growth. It does. Or, whether some of the surrounding land and part of the parcel in question is zoned high-density. It is.

The question is what to do with the part of the property that was never zoned, because it lies outside the Urban Growth Boundary, which (again, I agree with Cox) was misdrawn above the creek.

The developers, who make a final pitch to the city council on Monday, say it's obvious. Simply extend the high-density zoning downhill toward the creek.

The problem is the slope. The neighbors may have railed on too long about the treachery of townhouses, but the developer has been far too reticent on the issue of the slope, which determines the type of zoning allowed

The developers insist they've had an engineer look at the property and it's all OK.

But this is the same crew that argued that the levy on the opposite side of Gales Creek shouldn't have been considered when determining the flood-line. And the same bunch that last year tried an end-run around the city to move the UGB.

This litany of loophole-hopping raises the 'T-word.'

The question Monday night is whether the councilors trust the developer. As someone said during one of the many long hearings over this project, 'There's a difference between doing what's legal and doing what's right.'

It could be that the planning commission was wrong and that the parcel next to my parents' house is suitable for the kind of high-density housing the region needs.

But to make that determination, the city council needs a lot more facts and a bit less name-calling.