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Damascus likely to disincorporate, city leaders tell Metro

The lack of a city government could mean a long-awaited housing boom in the area

TRIBUNE PHOTO: SHASTA KEARNS MOORE - Damascus Mayor Diana Helm gesticulates during a joint work session of the city council and Metro council in Damascus City Hall on Tuesday.

The Metro Council traveled east Tuesday to ask the question on the minds of planners and developers around the region: What is up with Damascus?

The new city has struggled mightily and failed to come up with a plan for its development since incorporating in 2004. Damascus Mayor Diana Helm said she doesn’t see an end in sight.

“The land is here,” Helm said. “There’s so many political and financial impediments that it’s just making (development) extremely difficult.”

Metro, on the other hand, has to approve a forecast by the end of this year declaring whether the entire Portland region has enough housing stock to meet demand for the next 20 years. The draft Urban Growth Report guesses Damascus will build nearly 10,000 single family homes. If that development doesn’t happen, Metro might have to propose expanding its urban growth boundary to make more buildable land available elsewhere.

During the joint work session in the Damascus City Council Chambers, the two government’s councils mostly explained each others’ roles, responsibilities and limitations to each other and their small audience.

A knotted web of laws prevent several logical solutions to the dilemma. Here’s some of the questions the councilors asked each other.

• How likely is it that Damascus will disincorporate?

Very likely, according to three of the city leaders. Two other councilors are not so sure. Helm, however, says her coalition has knocked on 2,000 doors in recent weeks and finds, to her disappointment, a generally anti-city mindset.

“Unfortunately I have a very good idea as to where we’re headed as a city,” said the mayor. “Unfortunately, this job is very temporary.”

• If the city of Damascus disincorporates, will that mean more new homes will be built there or fewer?

In all likelihood, more. What is preventing growth in Damascus now is gridlock at the city created by measures passed by its citizenry. These are only-in-Damascus charter amendments, such as the one requiring a popular vote on a comprehensive land use plan or the one blocking the city from spending an ever-increasing share of its tax revenue.

Without a city, control over land use and other decisions would revert back to Clackamas County. Or, in the case of annexation, to nearby cities like Happy Valley or Gresham.

“We’ll still be in the urban growth boundary and another jurisdiction will take us over,” Helm said. “There’s not going to be a wall around Damascus and growth will end right there."

A caveat to this is that land in the Sunshine Valley, in eastern Damascus, is considered unbuildable in all but the distant future. This is because of gravity. The topography is such that wastewater from that area would have to be expensively pumped far away to avoid contamination to the Clackamas River.

• So why on Earth was Damascus considered a good place to expand the growth boundary to in the first place?

Metro Councilor Tom Hughes says it’s because the state required Metro to expand its urban growth boundary first to land unsuitable to farming. “By law, Damascus was the place where it had to take place,” Hughes said.

(Using Damascus as an example of why it might not be wise for preserving agricultural lands to be the only consideration, Metro has since successfully lobbied to change those rules for future growth boundary expansions.)

• Could Metro move back the urban growth boundary, thus allowing all or part of Damascus to no longer be under urbanization goals?

Maybe? There isn’t a legal process to do that, and there might not be much real benefit to doing so. However, Hughes and Metro Councilor Shirley Craddick, who represents the zone Damascus belongs to, said they would be open to considering a request from unified landowners to secede from the growth boundary. But that couldn’t happen if they were incorporated in a city.

• Then what happens now?

Several things. The city continues to process de-annexation requests that are slowly shrinking its borders. So far about 420 acres of the city’s 10,500 have fled, according to one account. Helm said 40 more landowners are interested in leaving, too. If the city can get small enough, perhaps it can soldier on with fewer stakeholders to bring to agreement.

Except that the Oregon Court of Appeals last week heard arguments in an ongoing court case over a 2013 vote that supporters say already disincorporated the city. If the court agrees with them, the city disappears.

Even if that effort fails, the Legislature is moving on a trio of bills that would allow another citywide vote to disincorporate the city in May 2016. Councilor Nancy Carpenter strongly opined that the city would be disincorporated soon one way or another.

“I’m willing to bet money we will disincorporate,” Carpenter said.

• But what happens now at Metro and what does that mean for the rest of the Portland area?

Hughes said he thought it was likely that Metro would either ask the state for an extension to its deadline for the 20-year growth forecast or submit the forecast but immediately start the process for the next report, due in six years.

“The question of how much to count for Damascus is not going to come to an end any time soon,” he said.