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Portland moves forward with 140-foot tower on Gresham Butte

Emergency communications tower to replace 40-foot tower there now


Gresham's mayor is outraged that the city of Portland plans to move ahead with plans for an emergency communications tower on Gresham Butte, albeit a shorter tower than proposed.

The city of Portland on Friday, Aug. 9, announced plans to submit a land-use application to the city of Gresham to build a public safety and emergency communications microwave transmission tower on the butte.by: OUTLOOK FILE PHOTO - Mayor Shane Bemis

It would replace a 40-foot-high emergency communications tower on land owned by the city of Portland in the 1100 block of Southwest Blaine Court. Originally, Portland proposed a 180-foot tower to replace the old, obsolete one. But on Friday, Mayor Charlie Hales' office announced that after informal talks between Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis and Hales, Portland proposed scaling back the tower to 140 feet. Hales also agreed to have the city of Portland conduct a third-party assessment of the site.

While Bemis agreed that Hales agreed to conduct a third-party assessment, no such compromise on the tower's height was reached.

Bemis is particularly disturbed that Hales plans to submit the land-use application before a third-party assessment can be conducted.

"The third party assessment is to find solutions and alternatives, including sites," Bemis said. "And by them submitting a land-use application, that tells me that's a bunch of lip service."

This spring, residents of the Gresham Butte Neighborhood Association voiced opposition to the proposed 180-foot tower.

The location is on the southeast side of Gresham Butte, but the existing 40-foot tower is obscured by far taller trees reaching heights of 120 feet.

Under the original proposal, the top third of the tower, or about 60 feet, would be visible above the treeline. Hales' proposed compromise of a 140-foot tower means that the top 20 feet would poke out above the trees.

The new $649,000 tower is part of Portland's $50 million emergency response radio replacement project and is needed to provide better emergency communications to first responders, including police, fire and 9-1-1 dispatchers throughout Multnomah County who provide critical public safety dispatch communications.

A new higher tower could fix dead zones in East Multnomah County, particularly near the Sandy River and on the south sides of local buttes that radio waves from the existing 21-year-old tower can't reach.

It also will provide better overall communications as the public safety system moves to fully digital communications.

The 1.35-acre site that Portland owns on Gresham Butte is one of 15 such locations that make up the Portland Public Safety Radio System. Portland began to lease the site in 1999 but bought it in 2010.

"We understand that a tower on Walter's Hill will be controversial for some people in Gresham," Hales said. "This enhanced radio system will provide better communications for the entire region, in the event of a disaster or large-scale emergency. This is a public safety issue to everyone."

Gresham residents living on or near the butte say they support improved emergency communications but not at the expense of the butte.

Mads Ledet, president of the Gresham Butte Neighborhood Association, said the community supports improving emergency communications, but without a third-party assessment remains unconvinced the tower needs to be on Gresham Butte, he said. "What about Powell Butte?" he asked. "It's in Portland."

Bemis also took a stand this spring against the proposal, calling on Hales to modify it in order to avoid "substantial aesthetic blight."

Gresham Butte is visible from many parts of the city, including Gresham's Historic Downtown, Main City Park, emerging Civic Neighborhood and other residential areas.

"Gresham's iconic buttes and natural areas are a source of great pride in the community, and our residents have been very supportive of efforts to protect these treasured landmarks from unsightly development," Bemis wrote to Hales in a letter dated May 7.

Since then, Bemis and Hales have discussed the issue multiple times. "I have reiterated to him ... that a tower on the most pristine protected butte in Gresham, placed there by the city of Portland, is an absolute non-starter," Bemis said, adding that anything poking above the treeline is unacceptable.

In response to Hales' Friday press release, Bemis issued one of his own titled, "Portland rejects repeated calls for partnership from Gresham."

Bemis said he has asked Hales to slow down his "thundering bureaucracy and consider partnering with us to find an alternative that protects public safety while also protecting the special places in our community," according to the release. "Initially, it seemed that Mayor Hales was interested in working with us, but that is clearly not the case. This proposal does not represent a compromise; it represents a very large jurisdiction's refusal to believe that there could possibly be anything important outside of their municipal boundaries."

Most recently, the two mayors agreed on July 26, to pursue a third-party analysis of options to hopes of finding a viable alternative, Bemis said. A short time later, Portland staff indicated it would only proceed with such a study if it did not consider alternative locations for the tower, and if the study took place concurrently with the land-use application for the replacement tower on Gresham Butte, Bemis said.

In Hales' press release, Portland's Chief Technology Officer Ben Berry is quoted as saying a third-party analysis taking place simultaneously with the land-use application is the only way to keep the project moving forward in a timely manner. "If we wait until after a third-party assessment, Gresham's land-use process will have moved on without us," Berry said.

Portland is scheduled to have the tower up and operating by early 2015, Berry said, but Gresham's land-use process includes 180 days for review, according to the press release.

"If the process takes 180 days, then the results of the third-party analysis would be available somewhere along there as part of the record," said Dana Haynes, Hales' communications director. "Gresham gets the extra analysis it wants, and we hit Gresham’s deadline."

Don't count on it, Bemis said.

"I will fight this every step of the way, through all of the appeals that are available to the city in terms of land use. We will exhaust all of them," Bemis said.

"This project is not on track. It is not going to be on track in its current form. We're not going to let Portland build a horrific, atrocious eyesore on top of our most pristine butte. It's not gonna happen. Sorry, Charlie."




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