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City vacates road to boost development

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - The view from North 1st Street and Wyeth Street shows the St. Helens Marina. At a Dec. 5 meeting, the St. Helens city council voted to vacate North 1st Street between Wyeth Street and Columbia Blvd. SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON It took Thanksgiving House nearly a year and a half just to get the paperwork in place to remodel a bathroom. Cecile Molden, who runs the adult foster home in St. Helens, anticipates the next project — adding two more bedrooms — could take even longer.

But she’s willing to do what it takes and wait patiently.

Small, family-type adult homes in Columbia County are few and far between and are nearly always full. Every year, Molden fields numerous phone calls at Thanksgiving House and has to turn away family after family.

“We have such a problem in this area,” she said.

The Thanksgiving House upgrade will expand its capacity from five to seven beds, and is happening thanks to a conditional approval the St. Helens City Council gave regarding a road vacation.

The vacation, which essentially turns a public right of way over to the control of abutting private properties, will affect the portion of North 1st Street between Wyeth Street and Columbia Boulevard, and allow for private development along the riverfront strip.

Councilor Doug Morten and Mayor Randy Peterson voted in favor of the street vacation following a public hearing Dec. 5. Councilor Susan Conn voted against it, saying it would affect the city’s ability to use the riverfront area for public use.

Councilor Keith Locke, as one of the affected land owners and a supporter of the vacation, did not vote. Councilor Patrick Martyn has been excused from attending council meetings due to poor health and was not present.

Brad Hendrickson of St. Helens Marina, LLC, had hoped for a full road vacation for the portion of land by the marina’s parking lot. He had received the support of the home and landowners nearby. But the City Council did not approve a full vacation in that area, although it did grant a partial vacation.

Hendrickson said his business is now looking to see if the councilors will still give them enough room to develop the land. The plan had originally been to build condos.

The city sees an average of roughly one or two street vacations a year during slow development seasons, and even more during times of rapid development, said City Planner Jacob Graichen.

“A lot of the time, it’s a gauge of development,” he said, adding that the vacations can increase the tax base when homeowners use the extra space to increase the size of their homes. Vacations are usually routine, easy to accomplish. The North 1st Street vacation was different.

With street and road vacations the council must ask one key question: Will the public interest be prejudiced?

“A lot of the time, that question is pretty easily answered,” Graichen said.

In this case, it was complicated by proximity to the river, irregular topography (there is a natural cliff face), differing uses along the road, the question of what could happen in the future, an above-ground pump station, and a possible extension of River Street, along the river, to connect to other residential streets. Planners also must deal with decisions made decades ago.

When St. Helens was first developed, the planners, like many city-builders in their day, simply imposed a grid over the area’s irregular landscape. Roads were built 80 feet wide to give horse-drawn wagons enough room to turn around.

One road along the North 1st Street vacation, intended to originally connect, grid-like to another road, ends in a cliff.

“There’s a right of way, but there’s also a 50 foot drop off,” Graichen said.

That right of way “was never going to be built,” Hendrickson said about the old plans. “But once something is in there, it’s hard to change.”