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Final result of Damascus voters' disincorporation vote hinges on suit

Judge's ruling on councilor's case expected by June 30

FILE PHOTO: THE OUTLOOK - Assuming the voter-approved disincorporation of the city of Damascus is upheld by a Clackamas County Circuit Court judge later this month, this sign would disappear along with the city government.Citizens of Damascus overwhelmingly voted to disincorporate in May’s primary election, but city walls haven’t come crumbling down — at least not yet.

Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Katherine Weber will rule by June 30 on a challenge to the constitutionality of the disincorporation measure, and whether the vote should have even appeared on the ballot.

This is the second time a vote for disincorporation was presented to Damascus voters in the city’s 12-year history. In 2013, the vote passed with a general majority, but not a majority of registered voters.

Last year, state representatives Shemia Fagan and Bill Kennemer sponsored a bill to lower the threshold, allowing a simple majority. This time around, the measure passed.

For Damascus residents who support the grassroots movements for disincorporation and deannexation, this was welcome news.

“We don’t need a city to be a good community,” said Jim Syring of Citizens for De-Annexation.

But Damascus City Councilor Jim De Young sees the status of the local government differently. On the belief that the Fagan and Kennemer bill was unconstitutional, the longtime resident filed suit with Clackamas County Circuit Court.

De Young argued that the Legislature did not have authority to change the law of disincorporation. De Young’s complaint lists the governor, the state, Clackamas County and the city of Damascus as defendants.

“The idea is that the city should continue to exist, and that we should work through our challenges,” De Young said. “I’m calling on all of the disparate elements to come together and do what a city should do.”

The incorporation of Damascus in 2004 initially seemed like a golden opportunity for property-rights advocates, who wanted to develop their land with minimal intrusion by the Metro regional government.

However, any mobilization toward city planning required the adoption of Metro’s ordinances and adherence to state land-use laws — namely, passage of a comprehensive plan. Repeated efforts at passage of a land-use plan were unsuccessful.

Caught between two extremes, property owners found themselves unable to develop their land, while paying taxes to a city that couldn’t provide basic services.

Some citizens, like Syring, felt that the grass was a little greener over the fence in Happy Valley, where development was already underway. However, when Syring tried to de-annex from Damascus, he and his neighbors were quickly served with a lawsuit from Damascus City Council, including De Young and then-mayor Steve Spinnett. This tension became political, and personal.

“Why would you vote ‘yes’ on a plan for a city you don’t want to exist?” Syring asked. “We didn’t want their comprehensive plan because we didn’t want them.”

In the June 15 hearing with Judge Weber, the courtroom was packed with supporters from both sides. But until the results of the decision are shared, Mayor Diana Helm is proceeding with business as usual. As of now, May’s vote stands. The city is set to close up in July.

If possible, Damascus resident Chris Hawes says it’s necessary for things to go back to the way they were.

“The lesson to be learned in Damascus is, ‘Be careful what you wish for,’ “ Hawes said. “We’ve basically been a community that’s worried ourselves to death over a future that wasn’t likely to unfold. At least not in our lifetimes.”