Wapato can be zoned for homeless, experts say
Those opposed to using Multnomah County's never-opened Wapato jail for the homeless frequently point out that the property is not zoned for a shelter.
The property is zoned industrial and, even though a 525-bed jail is an allowed use, a homeless shelter is not. The county even maintains a website that notes the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals prevented the City Council from moving the Right 2 Dream Too homeless camp to a piece of industrial land in Southeast Portland in 2016.
But land-use experts interviewed by the Portland Tribune said the zoning at Wapato is not a serious obstacle to using it for the homeless. There are multiple ways the city and county could overcoming the zoning problems at the North Portland site, none of which were tried for the R2DToo relocation.
The experts include Christe White, the lawyer who represented the Central Eastside Industrial Coucil in its successful LUBA appeal of the move.
"If the city and county are interested in using Wapato as a shelter with services for the homeless, they have a number of options," White said.
Another is land-use attorney Tim Ramis, who represented the county in the original purchase of the property for Wapato.
"When it comes to zoning, the City Council has a lot of tools. All it takes is three votes," Ramis said.
Wapato's current zoning "is not an insurmountable barrier" to using the property for a homeless shelter, said Eric Engstrom, a principal planner for the city of Portland. "If the council wanted to move in that direction they could."
The options are:
1. Waive the zoning restrictions under the authority of the housing state of emergency the council declared on Oct. 4, 2017.
The city's housing emergency ordinance says, "It is appropriate for the Council to extend the housing emergency declaration to allow for temporary housing, emergency mass shelters and storage to serve the homeless, and to expedite the creation of affordable housing."
Because the ordinance gives the city "the authority to waive provisions of the zoning code during the term of the emergency," where a homeless mass shelter may not otherwise be allowed in the Wapato building, the city and county could possibly use the waiver power in this case if that is what is desired," White said.
2. Declare the property to be a "transitional housing accomodation" under Oregon Revised Statute 446.265.
That is how the council authorized the Dignity Village homeless camp to be built on city-owned industrial land in North Portland in 2009. The ordinance authorizing the nine-year-old camp specifically cited the state law to allow it on industrial land. The ordinance authorizing the R2DToo relocation did not even mention the state law.
3. Change the allowable uses for industrial properties to include homeless shelters.
When the City Council wanted to expand the former Civic Stadium to host a Triple-A baseball team in the late 1990s, it discovered the property was zoned Open Space, which did not allow major commercial outdoor entertainment events — despite the fact that it had been built as a baseball stadium many years before. So the council amended the zoning code to allow such uses in Open Space zones.
"It only took a couple of months," Ramis recalled.
Ten years later, the council amended the code again to allow the construction of the Providence Sports Medicine Clinic at what was then called Providence Park.
4. Change the zoning to one that allows a homeless shelter, such as General Employment.
If the council changes the zoning for Wapato, it might have to identify and add an equivalent site to the Industrial Lands Inventory that the state requires the city to maintain. Wapato is built on an 18-acre parcel, which normally would require an equivalent replacement. Land-use experts says that might not be necessary, however, because the unopened jail has never served an industrial purpose.
But, even if the city has to find a replacement parcel, that might not be difficult. Mayor Ted Wheeler already has said he is interested in a current proposal by developer Homer Williams to rezone the 120-acre Broadmoor Golf Course as industrial land and rezone suitable parcles of existing but unused industrial land for affordable housing.
Engstrom, the city planner, says a rezone may require the city put together an analysis to justify the change that could be a "little bit challenging." And it could be subject to a land-use challenge. But he said city leaders "have the power to do that."
Zoning is not the only hurdle raised by opponents. They also point to transit access, though transit advocates say TriMet easily could extend bus service to Wapato.
They also point to Wapato's remote location as not just being away from services, but potentially enabling an out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach among city leaders.
Bob Joondeph, of the group Disability Rights Oregon, also is concerned that such a large facility would bring special challenges if used for the homeless. "I think it kind of takes something that's been an albtross and turns it into a bigger albatross for the city, in my view," he said.
The Multnomah County Commission voted last November to sell Wapato to developer Marty Kehoe for $10.8 million, which is more than its $8.5 million appraisal.
Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith was the only board member to vote against the sale, arguing that Wapato should be used to help the homeless.
But after being granted two extensions to determined the financial viability of the purchase, Kehoe canceled his offer but proposed to buy it for $5 million in a March 23 letter to the county. Oregon Harbor of Hope, a nonprofit organization founded by Williams, then offered $7 million for Wapato in an April 2 letter to county Chair Deborah Kafoury. The letter said Wapato would be operated as a homeless shelter and service center, if the sale was completed following a $200,000 feasability study underwritten by the organization.
The commission met the following day in executive session to discuss Kehoe's reduced offer. It is scheduled to discuss the offer again this Thursday. Smith is pushing to discuss all offers, including the new one from the Oregon Harbor of Hope and others received by CBRE, some of which were equal to or higher than Kehoe's current offer.
Wapato has long been a financial weight around the county's neck.
Voters approved a bond to fund the jail's construction in 1996. But county officials say that years later, the statewide passage of caps on property taxes meant that the county never had the funds to operate it.
Completed in 2004, it cost $58 million to build, and the county says it costs about $300,000 yearly to maintain.
An analysis by the Portland Tribune last year showed the total cost to date is more than $90 million, including interest and maintenance payments, and could exceed $105 million by the time all the bonds are finally paid off in 2030.
Downtown business owners and the Portland Police Association have pushed for Wapato to be used for the homeless.
So far, the City Council has not had to consider the idea seriously. And several members seem in no hurry to start now.
Commissioner Amanda Fritz declined to comment on the idea, and Commissioners Chloe Eudaly and Dan Saltzman also did not respond to the Tribune's questions.
Commissioner Nick Fish wrote in an email that he has confidence in the county's ability to make the right decision on Wapato.
"If a change in zoning is sought in the future, I would have a number of questions," Fish wrote, adding that he doesn't have enough information to make a decison. "I am loath to prejudge this issue without the benefit of a briefing on all the relevant legal and policy issues, as well as community input."
Similarly, a spokesman for Wheeler said he hasn't yet participated in any serious consideration of Wapato for a shelter, and he'd need to know more about transportation, zoning, costs and services.