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Is the end in sight for Damascus?


It’s official: Damascus residents will vote Nov. 5 whether the city should disincorporate and revert to unincorporated Clackamas County.

Damascus City Councilors on Tuesday, June 25, unanimously approved a resolution referring the issue to voters after Clackamas County elections officials verified the signatures needed to put the disincorporation measure to a vote. Petitioners needed 304 initiative signatures, and the county verified 603.

Meanwhile, the city’s planning commission has approved and recommended that the City Council adopt a recently completed comprehensive plan and development code for Damascus. The plan oversees everything from where streets, sidewalks, parks and sewers will be to how future growth will be managed. City councilors are considering the recommendation and could adopt the plan as soon as July 1. Then it would be referred to the voters on the same ballot that the disincorporation measure will be on.

The two measures present a host of possible election outcomes, including one scenario in which the city could cease to exist but have a roadmap for future development.

If voters decide to keep Damascus intact as a city, but fail to approve the comprehensive plan, the city’s existing comprehensive plan will remain in place. It dates back to 2005 when Damascus city councilors adopted Clackamas County’s comprehensive plan, said Mike McCallister, Clackamas County’s planning director.

But since then, Clackamas County has updated the plan. Whether those changes would apply to Damascus if the city disincorporates and fails to approve the proposed comprehensive plan would be up to county commissioners.

The zoning, however, remains rural — the same as it’s been since even before Damascus was brought within Metro’s regional urban growth boundary in 2002.

If residents opt to disincorporate but approve the plan, the plan could remain. But it would have to be adopted and become effective before disincorporation takes effect. That would happen either 60 days after the vote or 60 days after the council certifies the vote, McCallister said.

On the plus side, if voters disincorporate, their net city and county property tax rate of $5.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value would drop by nearly 46 percent to $2.98 per $1,000. That’s because although the Damascus property tax rate of $3.10 would disappear, Clackamas County charges higher property taxes for unincorporated areas — $2.98 per $1,000 versus $2.40 per $1,000 — than Damascus residents now pay in county taxes as an incorporated city.

Damascus voters defeated a measure last November that would have removed part of Damascus from the regional urban growth boundary in large part because doing so would not lower property taxes and would make it harder for property owners to develop their land.

Disincorporation proponents say the city has little to show for city taxes residents pay and blame a lack of leadership. Those who want to remain a city say doing so provides local control over how the area grows, which is why residents voted in 2004 to become a city after Metro pegged it as the next new big suburb after bringing the area into the urban growth boundary.

Those growth projections failed to materialize, however.

A global economic recession put the brakes on growth. Damascus residents failed to approve a previous comprehensive plan that the council had blessed. Plus, political backbiting has monopolized the council’s energy and city staff’s time.