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Council majority prefers to keep status quo on access to Oswego Lake

A majority of city council members on Tuesday indicated they hope to maintain the 'status quo' on Oswego Lake, keeping it private in the years to come.

Although the city has never taken a formal position on public versus private access, officials have 'acted over time' by focusing on enhancing 'visual access' for all residents and making 'a conscious choice not to test theories or pursue legal judgment to gain public access,' Lake Oswego Mayor Jack Hoffman said.

'In our actions, the city has essentially been neutral,' he said. 'We have worked to maintain the status quo.'

Hoffman said he can't control whether a different entity sues Lake Oswego Corporation, which took over lake control from Oregon Iron and Steel decades ago. But if that does happen, he hopes to keep the city out of the crosshairs.

'The only definitive answer on whether Oswego Lake can be accessed by the public and to what measure will come through expensive litigation, and that's not what I'm about as mayor,' Hoffman said. 'I do not believe it is in the best interest of our community for this city to be a part to any expensive, community-dividing litigation.'

The council's discussion followed the planning commission's Feb. 13 move to add a draft policy to the city's comprehensive plan. Commissioners said they want to foster a community discussion about whether lake access should help meet local recreation needs. The new policy calls for providing and enhancing 'low-impact recreational access,' such as swimming, canoeing and kayaking, from public properties along the Willamette and Tualatin rivers and Oswego Lake.

The commission will hold a public hearing on the plan next week.

Formerly a smaller body of water known as Sucker Lake, Oswego Lake now covers more than 400 acres at the city's geographic center. Aside from a seasonal city-run swim park, only those with waterfront property or deeded easement access can use the lake.

None of the council members lives on the lake, but Donna Jordan and Bill Tierney noted Tuesday that they have access to easements. Mike Kehoe also has easement access, according to the city.

Officials recently received letters from a law professor specializing in public land and water issues and from the Northwest Environmental Defense Center suggesting the lake is owned by the state, and city policies shouldn't prevent its public use.

Councilors Kehoe and Mary Olson said Tuesday they felt they had to wait for the planning commission's recommendation before taking a position. Both also said they were perturbed the commission chose to push the discussion.

'At one point, I did feel it was important for this council to make a strong statement about the lake access issue,' Olson said. However, because the discussion is scheduled, she said, 'We will now have to wait and see what the planning commission does or does not forward to this council on this issue.'

'For my part,' Kehoe added, 'I'm bothered the planning commission didn't heed the decision of the advisory committee and this has moved to the level it has.'

But councilor Sally Moncrieff said the advisory committee did not suggest that the commission ignore the lake issue; committee members simply didn't feel it fit their own charge.

'We currently have a goal in our existing comprehensive plan to protect the natural resources, energy and aesthetic of Oswego Lake, with the first policy being to work with the Lake Corp. to protect the resource,' she said. 'At this point, it seems that our existing goals and policies pertaining to the lake are strong and have worked well for the city.'

Jordan agreed. 'I don't see a problem with the planning commission proceeding,' she said. 'My personal preference is to maintain the status quo.'

Tierney didn't feel the council had to take a formal position. However, he said, 'I am convinced the community is best-served today by maintaining the status quo. I think the Lake Corp. has done an excellent job of enhancing and preserving the quality of the lake. If that were to fall apart - and there's a big 'if' - I think we as a community would be poorly served.'

Although councilor Jeff Gudman didn't state his opinion during the meeting, he later said he also is watching what happens with the planning commission.

'If it goes beyond the planning commission' and if a goal aiming to open access comes to the council, he said, 'then you'll hear my voice.'

With at least four of the seven saying they preferred to keep the 'status quo,' it's unclear what sort of sway a planning commission recommendation for lake access would have.

As it receives pieces of the comprehensive plan from the citizen advisory committee, the commission will review, tweak and advance drafts up the chain to the city council, which could also change pieces as it sees fit.

Depending on what happens next week, the mayor said, council opinions could shift. The planning commission's meeting begins at 6:30 p.m. Monday at city hall, 380 A Ave. Hoffman said he hopes to attend.

'If the community has a different perspective, and if the planning commission felt comfortable in moving that up to us,' he said, 'I think the council would take a fair look at it.'



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