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Bluff removal applicant pitches alternative plan


St. Helens Planning Commission hears continuation of S. St. Helens LLC's appeal

by: SPOTLIGHT FILE PHOTO - S. St. Helens LLC is seeking a sensitive lands permit, which they need from the city of St. Helens to proceed with plans to level this basalt bluff in a north St. Helens neighborhood. Neighbors oppose the project and have urged the city's Planning Commission to deny the permit.The St. Helens Planning Commission opted Tuesday, June 10, not to make an immediate decision on a development company’s appeal of the city planner’s decision to deny them a permit needed for a project that would level a bluff in north St. Helens to make way for a residential development.

The commissioners decided they needed more time to gather information on an alternative proposal representatives of S. St. Helens LLC offered, which would modify the project by leaving part of the bluff in place in an attempt to avoid disturbing wetlands. Under that proposal, a wall of basalt rock as high as 45 feet in places would overlook the planned development, bordering multiple lots.

“Option B” — as City Planner Jacob Graichen and the applicant’s attorney, Andrew Stamp of Lake Oswego, called the new proposal — was raised near the end of appeal hearing proceedings on May 13, which were carried over to Tuesday. But Graichen said the applicant did not submit the plan to the city until late last week.

Stamp asked the Planning Commission to consider both the original proposal, which he called “Option A,” and the new proposal.

“We really have both proposals in front of you. Whichever one you like better, we’re happy with,” Stamp said, adding, “I think we prefer Option A. We think it works better. But if Option B is kind of the make-it-or-break-it deal, then we’ll go with that.”

Some neighbors of the bluff between North 10th and 12th streets, near St. Helens Middle School, urged the commission to deny the permit and consider the second proposal separately.

Joe Christianson, who spoke at the hearing last month, said, “If they come up with Plan C in the next 10 minutes, or Plan D five minutes before midnight, it’s still what was denied is being appealed. Now you guys are actually being shuffled around. Now we’re doing a little shell game.”

Christianson concluded, “Deny it. Let’s get out of here. Let them resubmit their Plan B or their Plan C with Jacob. And let’s go through this whole thing front to center. ... I don’t want another shuffle game going on.”

But Commissioner Dan Cary, acting as chairman in the hearing, said the Planning Commission would not take action until at least July 8, when the commissioners voted to hold their deliberations.

Concerns about blasting impacts

Among the documents entered into the public record before Tuesday’s meeting was a letter from the St. Helens School District expressing concerns about blasting that would be done to remove the basalt bluff and up to 18 feet of rock and soil underneath it. The district said the blasting could cause structural damage to the nearby middle school and urged the commission to stay its decision, if it decides in favor of the developer, long enough for it to commission a geotechnical study.

Others testifying Tuesday also expressed concern about potential damage to their homes or disruption to the environment.

“I’m concerned for the school,” said Sally Gump, who lives nearby. “I’m concerned for my house. I’m concerned that the blasting and everything going on is going to ruin my foundation, and I want to know who’s going to buy my house and live in my house.”

“Our house, we get the vibration from the train,” Joy Boren said. “If I had to put up with the blasting and that, the cracks in the foundation, the wall, sheet rock cracks, stuff like that, who’s going to help me take care of that maintenance?”

Gump questioned the need for the new residential development for which the bluff removal project would make way.

“They want to put in all these houses, and I find that that’s really stupid, because I have all these houses around me that are sitting vacant,” Gump said. “I have drug people coming in and squatting in them, and that’s bad enough.”

Some opponents of the project have suggested the removal of the mostly basalt outcropping would effectively constitute mining, which St. Helens prohibits in residential areas. The developer disagrees.

The commission’s decision to postpone deliberations until next month also set up a series of deadlines.

A revised staff report analyzing the partial-removal proposal will be due by Tuesday, June 17. The following Tuesday, June 24, is the deadline for members of the public to submit written comments or documents into the record addressing the second proposal. Tuesday, July 1, will be the applicant’s last date of opportunity to respond to the staff report and public comments, although new evidence will not be considered. The Tuesday after that is July 8, the date of the next Planning Commission meeting, at which the commissioners will deliberate and likely make a decision on the sensitive lands permit application.