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Our Opinion: Stop tower bullying

The city of Portland was coming off as a schoolyard bully in its dealings with Gresham on placement of an emergency communications tower, but that attitude began to change Monday afternoon.

That’s when Portland altered course, saying it was willing to pursue a third-party evaluation, and to consider alternative sites and alternative technologies for the communication tower.

We welcome that news, having believed all along that the matter — like any playground dispute — is best resolved through third-party intervention.

At issue is a 140-foot tower proposed to be erected on land Portland purchased 14 years ago atop Gresham Butte. The structure would replace a 40-foot radio tower at the site.

Residents of the Gresham Butte area, along with Mayor Shane Bemis, have pointed out that the new tower could be an eyesore extending 20 feet above the tallest trees on a butte that the community has protected in the past. The tower is needed to improve emergency communications into hard-to-reach areas, such as the Sandy River canyon.

Bemis and Portland Mayor Charlie Hales have been talking about the possibility of finding a compromise on the tower, but Hales outraged his Gresham counterpart Friday when Portland announced it would move ahead with a land-use application. Hales said Portland had to push forward with the permitting process because it could take 180 days to get approval and the tower needs to be up and running by early 2015.

We understand the need for timely improvement of the regional emergency communications system, but Portland also must recognize the risk of a protracted land-use dispute. In the short run, Gresham holds the upper hand in this debate. Its staff must issue an even handed judgment on a special-use permit, but its political leaders and neighborhood groups can appeal any decision all the way up to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.

That’s why it makes sense for Portland to enter into serious discussions with Gresham about possible alternatives. A third-party evaluation will have the greatest value to both cities if they share in the selection of the company that does the evaluation, and also share the expense.

This particular tower — which will cost $649,000 — is part of a $50 million emergency response radio replacement project. In the end, the project will improve communications to first responders, including police, fire and 9-1-1 dispatchers throughout Multnomah County. Gresham residents want those services to be available when needed — which means they understand the balance between preserving vistas and preserving lives.

Portland’s mayor and emergency officials have embraced Gresham’s call for a third-party review of the options. Now, the city of Gresham must demonstrate an equal share of goodwill by partnering with Portland on that study.