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Just two weeks before the final closing date of the sale of the Freeman water tank property to Renaissance Homes, Commissioner Nick Fish offered the Southwest Portland neighbors who oppose the sale another alternative — mediation — and the neighbors agreed.

Calling themselves the Woods Park Advocates, for the natural area that abuts the Freeman property, these neighbors have spent the last five months organizing increasingly vocal opposition to the sale of the .76-acre property and the decommissioned Freeman water tank on it.

In December the opponents, who have formed an ad hoc subcommittee of the Multnomah Neighborhood Association under the auspices of Southwest Neighborhoods Inc., hired attorney Kristian S. Roggendorf to represent them in their fight to stop the sale. At the end of the month, he sent Fish a letter arguing the sale was illegal. Among other things, the letter said the city failed to provide adequate public notice about the ordinance approved by the City Council declaring the Freeman property surplus and subsequently agreeing to sell it to Renaissance Homes for infill development in late September 2012. The letter also said the sale violates Portland’s city charter and code and Oregon state law.

“A city, in order to comply with (Oregon statute 221.725), has to go ahead and actually put sale and the terms of the sale up for public notice and comment,” Roggendorf said. “There’s no indication that anything that had to happen happened.”

On the other side of the table is Fish, who inherited this controversy when Mayor Charlie Hales assigned him to the Water Bureau last June. He holds that the level of public notice technically satisfied the terms of the ordinance, though he has agreed that more public notice should have been provided and will be in the future.

“Look, I have listened carefully to the concerns that have been raised, and I have taken immediate action to make sure in future sales of surplus property we’ll do a better job of providing public notice,” Fish said. “That’s important to me. At the same time I’ve inherited what I’m told is a binding contract to sell this property.”

But on Jan. 16, Fish announced via a letter from Portland Deputy City Attorney Terence L. Thatcher that he would be putting the sale on hold for the time being. He proposed the water bureau enter into three-way mediation with the opponents and Renaissance, and asked Renaissance to “agree to delay the sale closing date and that the neighbors agree to postpone any legal action until we have given mediation a chance to work.”

“It’s a negotiation among the parties with a neutral facilitator who has no vested interest other than seeing if he or she can shape an agreement that everyone can sign on to,” Fish told the Portland Tribune. “So it has the potential to be very creative and at the very least make sure that everyone is heard.”

After taking the weekend to think it over, the Woods Park Advocates agreed through Roggendorf.

“They’re glad that Commissioner Fish recognized that there’s some real problems,” he said, “and we’re going to participate in mediation provided that the sale does not go through in the meantime.”

Other groups opposing the sale include the nearby Ashcreek and Crestwood neighborhood associations, Friends of Wood Park, and Oregon Wild.

Still, Fish said the size of the opposition to the Freeman sale has been vastly overestimated, and actually consists of a very small group of immediate neighbors who, whatever they say, would still not be satisfied if the property were ever to be sold, no matter how aboveboard the sale process.

“I don’t view this as much of a movement; this is a .6-of-an-acre piece of property that has some neighbors concerned about the way the city has disposed of it,” he said, but “I treat all concerns that have come to my attention the same, and that’s why we’re going to get a mediator.”

“At the end of the day we’re going to do things that not everybody agrees with, but in leadership, it’s not always a popularity contest,” Fish said. “Sometimes, we have to do the right thing.”

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