Confusion about planning deadlines appears to be at root of Gresham, Portland discontent

Planning experts for the city of Gresham say Portland's rush to file a land-use application to build a 140-foot emergency communications tower on Gresham Butte appears to be due to confusion about deadlines for various parts of the land-use process.

Portland Mayor Charlie Hales announced Friday, Aug. 9, plans to file the land-use application this week for a controversial emergency communications microwave transmission tower on Gresham's landmark butte, also known as Walter's OUTLOOK FILE PHOTO  - Portland Mayor Charlie Hales

Because the plans would be filed before a third-party analysis of alternative sites could be conducted, the announcement outraged Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis.

Hales' press release stated that having the analysis take place simultaneously with the land-use application was 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," said Ben Berry, Portland's chief technology officer.

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 Hale's press release. Staff said the paperwork has to be filed by Thursday, Aug. 15, to be on the docket for this development cycle. Otherwise, Portland would have to wait half a year before filing again.

Not so, said Jonathan Harker, urban design and planning director for the city of Gresham.

"The reality is there are two deadlines that are related to the pre-application conference held," which was held Feb. 27, Harker said.

The first one is the land-use application must be filed within 18 months of the conference, or by late August 2014, he said. The second one, "which apparently is causing some confusion," is related to the neighborhood notification meeting that must be held before the land-use application can be filed. Once the meeting takes place, Portland has six months to file the application or it must hold another neighborhood notification meeting, Harker said.

Portland held a neighborhood meeting about the tower proposal on April 4, which gives Portland until Oct. 1, to file its land-use application.

If Portland waits until after Oct. 1 to file, it must hold another neighborhood meeting with two-weeks notice for those in Gresham Butte neighborhood. Portland could file its land-use application the very next day, Harker said.

Bemis said he hopes Portland officials feel relieved of any perceived deadline pressure and choose to wait until after an analysis of alternate sites is complete before filing the land-use OUTLOOK FILE PHOTO  - Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis

Otherwise, "I will fight this every step of the way," Bemis said. "The community will fight this every step of the way."

At issue is the need to balance the protection of one of Gresham's most prized landmark buttes — visible from many parts of the city, including Gresham's Historic Downtown, Main City Park, Civic Neighborhood and other residential areas — with the regional need to improve emergency communications.

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.

Portland owns the 1.35-acre site where the existing 40-foot tower is on Gresham Butte in the 1100 block of Southwest Blaine Court. After leasing the site in 1999, Portland bought it in 2010. The tower on it is one of 15 such locations that make up the Portland Public Safety Radio System.

"We understand that a tower on Walter's Hill will be controversial for some people in Gresham," Hales said in his Friday, Aug. 9, press release. "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."

The press release also outlined plans to file a land-use application this week, and stated that the land-use process would happen at the same time as the analysis was being conducted; however, the analysis would not look at alternative sites.

This outraged Bemis, who along with members of the Gresham Butte Neighborhood Association, has voiced opposition to the tower since this spring when it was originally proposed as a 180-foot structure to replace an already existing 40-foot tower on the southeast side of Gresham Butte.

The existing 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.

Bemis also expressed shock and dismay on Friday when Portland said that although it would conduct a study on the Gresham Butte site, the analysis would not include any other sites or alternatives.

On Monday, Aug. 12, Hales' office changed course, announcing that it will consider other possible sites for the tower.

Portland will pay for and hire a firm that's done work for Portland before, and will share that information with Gresham, said Dana Haynes, Hales' communications director.

"Nothing is off the table," Haynes wrote in an email to The Outlook. "Alternative sites? Great. Alternative technology? Great."

Portland also will share an inventory analysis with Gresham’s land-use staff, an analysis that includes a list of potential sites in the region, as well as their pluses and minuses, Haynes said.

Bemis said it's great that Portland is open to studying alternative sites for the tower. But that concession is disingenuous unless Portland backs off on its plans to submit a land-use application to the city of Gresham by this Thursday.

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

Gresham residents living on or near the butte say they support improved emergency communications but not at the expense of the landmark 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, which he called an unblemished icon.

"What about Powell Butte?" Ledet asked. "It's in Portland."

He is lobbying Gresham officials to consider the project as a Type III process, instead of a Type II, which would require less public comment. Type III processes are usually reserved for land use requests that "require the exercise of judgment and which have broad public interest," Ledet said, citing Gresham's development code.

"There is no question in my mind that this request fits as a Type III when our beloved Gresham Butte would be impacted so heavily," Ledet wrote on Friday, Aug. 11, in a letter to Gresham City Manager Erik Kvarsten.

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