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State board upholds St. Helens bluff decision

LUBA finds for commission, which rejected permit for project

Photo Credit: FILE - The Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals found that the St. Helens Planning Commission acted within the law in rejecting a permit for a development project that would raze this basalt outcropping in a north St. Helens neighborhood.The Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals held Friday, Jan. 16, that the St. Helens Planning Commission was within its rights to deny a permit for a development project in north St. Helens last year that would have seen a basalt bluff razed to make way for residential construction.

In a decision written by board member Michael A. Holstun, LUBA rejected an appeal from developer S. St. Helens LLC, ruling that the commission's unanimous decision was lawful. Commissioners agreed last year that the proposed bluff removal ran afoul of city code prohibiting surface mining in residential areas and would have had unacceptable impacts on neighbors, including St. Helens Middle School.

Holstun's decision noted in part, “That level of rock removal will require a great deal of blasting over 12 to 16 months and send thousands of ten-yard dump trucks to and from the site through the surrounding neighborhood and past the nearby school to remove the rock. Given that evidence, a reasonable decision maker could conclude that the Proposal significantly exceeds the amount of rock removal that must be allowed to residentially develop the site.”

The developer, represented in the appeal by Lake Oswego-based attorney Andrew Stamp, argued the Planning Commission wrongly characterized the planned “grading” of the bluff and asserted it erred in categorizing the rock removal as “natural mineral resources development” when it denied a sensitive lands permit for the project, among other arguments. However, the appeals board sided with the city on all points.

The bluff targeted by the development project overlooks North 10th, 11th and 12th streets in St. Helens. It is largely made up of basalt, a hard rock with industrial and commercial applications. Project representatives, including Stamp, acknowledged that basalt removed during the excavation would be sold to cover the costs of the project.

Holstun was apparently unimpressed, writing, “Whatever you call the basalt rock, it seems difficult to characterize the Proposal as something other than '“extract[ion]” for the primary purpose of financial profit' when the sale of the 500,000 cubic yards of rock is expected to return approximately $7.5 million."

The decision suggested the city might be more willing to consider a development proposal that removed a smaller amount of rock from the bluff for construction.

Lots were mapped out across the surface of the bluff in the 19th century.

Jacob Graichen, St. Helens' city planning administrator, reacted to the news Thursday.

“You put a lot of effort into these things, and it's good to know that we have a positive conclusion,” he said of the city's work.

LUBA's decision can be appealed to the Oregon Court of Appeals. Stamp did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Editor's note: This story has been updated.