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Land-use plan vote comes back around

• Voters to weigh in during March election • Leaders, residents differ on benefits of land-use guidelines


Photo Credit: ADAM WICKHAM - Without a comp plan, property owners would be unable to puruse to kind of development taking place in Happy Valley. Ballots went out on Thursday for the Tuesday, March 10, special election, in which Damascus voters will again have their say on a resident-initiated comprehensive land-use plan that was voted down last year.

While state law requires that cities have comp plans, Oregon has nothing on its books that says the state would step in and impose their own should Damascus fail to do so, a line city politicians have pushed for years.

Yet, without a plan, some say they feel residents are indeed at a disadvantage.

Damascus is the only city in Clackamas County that has a measure on the ballot for the March 10 election, and it’s the only city in Oregon that requires a resident majority to pass a comprehensive plan.

A drop box at City Hall, 19920 S.E. Highway 212, is available to collect ballots on which residents will answer the question: “Shall the city adopt a Comprehensive Land Use Plan previously not adopted by the City Council.”

If approved, this plan would be submitted to the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission to begin the acknowledgment process.

In 2014, voters handed down a resounding “no” to the three comp plans on the ballot, with 65 percent of voters rejecting the resident-initiated comprehensive plan, 66 percent of voters voting down the mayor’s comp plan, and 88 percent of voters rejecting the council president’s plan.

The rejection of comprehensive plans is closely tied to House Bill 4029, passed in August by state legislators, which allows Damascus residents to de-annex from the city to pursue development. The comp plan would provide an overall guide for future growth and development in the city, but without one there can be no development within the city’s borders.

The same residents pushing for de-annexations also the lead the powerful citizen action groups pushing residents to reject the comp plans. Signs posted throughout Damascus this month, accompanied by a photo of Councilor Jim De Young with a red slash through his face, urged residents to vote “no” on the plan.

In January, the new council’s first action was to drop lawsuits it held against the 22 property owners who submitted petitions to leave the city, allowing them to de-annex from the Damascus and do what they wish with their land. Last month, the city also began the hearing process for de-annexation petitions from GDI New Horizons and Lowell Patton, who together own hundreds of acres in the city.

Managing growth

Photo Credit: ADAM WICKHAM - Signs posted around Damascus urge residents to vote no on the comp plan on March. 10Mayor Diana Helm and councilors David Hadley and Nancy Carpenter won their seats on a platform to let resident voices lead the future of Damascus, but not everyone agrees that de-annexation or disincorporation is the best direction to go.

Councilor Jim De Young, the lead proponent for the comp plan on the March 10 ballot, said this may be Damascus’ last chance to control its own development

“The people who oppose the comp plan, especially Patton and GDI, they want out of the city, and they’ve encouraged disincorporation,” De Young said. He said the main motivation for the mega-property owners to vote down the comp plan and push for disincorporation is so they would not be bound by the city’s restrictions under the comp plan.

If the plan passes, he added, it would put restrictions on development, including requiring a percentage of land to be preserved for open space.

“It’s a selfish attempt to pursue their own wealth and development at the expense of the people, and if that message could get out the residents would rise up and vote for a comp plan,” De Young said. “These are powerful, wealthy people who have used every effort to stop a comp plan and all kinds of people have been duped into following them.”

Another issue complicating matters is the marijuana laws that will go into effect in May. Without a comprehensive plan, Damascus would not be able to regulate where dispensaries could be built.

“The potential is, we could have a marijuana dispensary open up in any place where there is already a commercial building,” De Young explained. “We as a city have to decide what limitations we want to have.”

According to the comp plan, the core values for Damascus are rural character, environmental stewardship and economic fairness. But it lags behind surrounding cities with no sewer systems and an inability to seek out road improvements through the Oregon Department of Transportation.

“Ninety percent of the city is on septic systems,” Helm said. “It’s going to cost millions, if not ‘the b-word’, to get the infrastructure.”

The plan would establish a policy that only landowners who develop their property will be responsible for costs associated with public infrastructure needed to support growth.

The plan also includes projected costs of what it would take to build, operate and maintain water and transportation infrastructure to serve Damascus for the next 20 years. Total water capital costs for construction would be $235.1 million, which does not include the annual operation and maintenance costs of drinking-water treatment and wastewater collection and treatment.

Community conversations

A transportation infrastructure guide proposed in the plan identified 22 key projects to serve the 20-year period included refinement plans, roadways, intersection improvements and right-of-way acquisitions. The plan estimates construction would cost $320.5 million and annual operations and maintenance would cost $1.2 million.

Helm would not comment this week on how she would vote on the plan on March 10, but said the lack of a plan is not the main problem facing Damascus right now. Other issues, like a spending limit in the city’s charter, pose a greater risk to the future of the community.

“It’s in the best interest if we stay a city to have a plan, but I have different means of getting a ‘yes’ vote,” Helm said. “I think it means having conversations with the community.”

Since Helm was voted to be, yes, at the helm of the community, she maintains that building trust and talking with residents should be a top priority of government.

In an interview earlier this month, she said the city’s leaders need to do a better job of understanding why people feel the way they do.

“The big question of the day is, is the two-thirds of the people who said, ‘We don’t even want to be a city,’ — were they just fed up and disgusted? Was it a protest vote of, enough already with our local government?” Helm asked. “I don’t know. We need to be having more intimate conversations about what it is they want.

“Because when I campaigned and when I knocked on doors and I asked people, ‘How did you vote on disincorporation and how did you vote on the comp plan’...” she added, “if they said they voted down the comp plan, I asked why, and they couldn’t even tell me why. Many of them said, ‘I don’t know. I just saw the signs.’”

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