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Council to Metro: Time for a shift in sensitive lands

The city of Lake Oswego will challenge the idea that it can’t roll back environmental protections or remove them from citizens’ backyards.

On Tuesday, the council pushed forward with a plan to shift sensitive lands designations from private properties to city-owned parks and natural areas.

Mayor Kent Studebaker will take the plan to the regional Metro Council, although the city council said it will move ahead regardless of the agency’s reaction.

Council President Mike Kehoe said the idea is to send a strong message that is difficult for Metro councilors to shoot down.

“I would like to be as proactive as we can about this rather than going hat-in-hand begging,” he said. “It’s time for us to take a firm stance and tell Metro we want to change this.”

Councilor Jeff Gudman agreed.

“It’s better to act and seek forgiveness than never to act at all,” he said. “Let us remove the sensitive lands designations and take it to Metro and say, ‘This is what we’ve done.’”

But Councilor Donna Jordan opposed that idea, contending the city was making a risky move.

“Taking sensitive lands conditions off of properties where there is a stream running through your backyard is not going to happen, and not only are you going to deal with Metro, but you are going to get sued by every other land-use organization in the state,” she said. “I’m not willing to move this city into a position where we’re having to legally defend in court the kinds of things we know will not stand up under Oregon law.”

The sensitive lands program, in place since the 1990s, sets stricter land-use and development rules on properties mapped with natural resources such as streams, wetlands and stands of trees. The program is how the city meets Metro policies that keep the region in compliance with state planning and land-use goals.

But the program ignited a storm of controversy several years ago, when the city attempted to update maps showing where those restrictions apply. Updates were put on hold, a task force convened and changes were made to incorporate more flexibility into the rules.

Facing ongoing concerns from citizens over the program, officials have continued to analyze and revise the program.

Although Jordan said she supported making some changes, possibly adjusting which features that qualify as waterways or how regulations are placed on groves of trees, she took issue with the concept of removing restrictions near streams on the basis of who owned the property the water runs through.

“It doesn’t matter if it goes through somebody’s backyard,” she said. “It is still a stream. It still needs to be regulated. There is no tradeoff in Oregon for protecting water.”

Lauren Hughes, part of LO Stewards, a group opposed to the way the city regulates sensitive lands, told the council on Tuesday that she supports a proposal presented about a year ago by Dave Hunnicutt of Oregonians in Action. Hunnicutt proposed shifting sensitive lands restrictions from residential properties to larger tracts of publicly owned lands, such as Foothills Park, Roehr Park and Luscher Farm. Residential properties would still be regulated by the city’s community development and tree codes.

Hughes said the existing program unfairly targets a small number of citizens’ backyards while allowing development on properties with similar or more valuable natural resources.

“If you want to trade, you trade with public land,” Hughes told the council. “You do not trade with my backyard or anybody else’s.”

She said the new program should keep the city in compliance with regional and state policies.

“We’re talking about 203 acres here,” she said. “I don’t see this as being an environmental catastrophe that we give citizens their yards back.”

The odds of securing an easy win at Metro don’t look great, according to Ron Bunch, the city’s planning director. Bunch said Lake Oswego’s staff has shared the council’s ideas with Metro and state departments to hear their perspectives about amending the way the city regulates sensitive lands.

While they aren’t against jurisdictions revising their programs, he said, “We would have to work within the bookends, from their perspective, of state and regional goals.”

That likely means complying with a “no rollback” provision now in Metro’s policies, requiring proof that changes to an existing program won’t lead to a loss in natural resource functions and values.

Still, the mayor said he is confident officials will be able to prove the city can remove environmental protections from private properties and still comply with Metro and state rules.

“We’re going to try to win them over with the force of persuasion,” Studebaker said Wednesday morning. He wasn’t sure when he would go before the Metro Council with the city’s plan.

“The goal here is still to take care of our environment, and there actually is certainly a number of people who feel doing it in the way we’re suggesting here would be a more effective way of doing it,” Studebaker said. “It’s not like we’re going to rape, pillage and plunder the land.”

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