Area businesses report threats of boycotts, raised rent

by: TIDINGS FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Some area businesses along Highway 43 in West Linn feel they have been pressured by a grassroots group to oppose a water treatment plant expansion and installation of a pipeline.In a twist of irony, a group of residents fighting an industrial project, saying it will hurt their homes and area businesses, is allegedly threatening and bullying those same businesses.

West Linn First, a group of about 20 West Linn residents, has been working to stop the expansion of the Lake Oswego water treatment plant, which sits in a quiet Robinwood neighborhood area between Kenthorpe Way and Mapleton Drive. In addition, an LLC, STOP Tigard Oswego Project, was registered back in November. STOP was formed by William More, owner of the Robinwood Shopping Center, and is managed by a handful of residents.

This group is behind the appeal of the West Linn City Council’s approval of the Lake Oswego-Tigard Water Partnership conditional use permits for the water plant expansion and the installation of a pipeline that will run down a section of Highway 43. It is also part of a Clackamas County Circuit Court lawsuit filed against the mayor and three city councilors alleging meeting violations.

From doomsday talk to threats of boycotts, some businesses in the neighborhood say they feel threatened by the group.

Business owners, managers fearful

The fear is so high, not a single business owner or manager the Tidings contacted was willing to speak on the record about their encounters with these residents.

According to City Manager Chris Jordan, the city has heard from several businesses in the neighborhood, but none of them has filed any formal complaints.

“Yes, we have heard concern raised that for one reason or another businesses may have felt compelled to take a position opposing the project,” Jordan said.

“We have heard this through informal discussions as part of our increased attention on economic development,” Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt explained.

“If you are hearing those rumors, that’s not good for us,” said Scott Gerber, a member of West Linn First and a manager for STOP. “None of our members would do that sort of thing.”

Gerber said the subject of boycotts has come up in meetings, but nobody is advocating it.

“We’ve been steadfast that we will not boycott businesses. It’s upsetting to me that that information is getting out there. We feel very strongly that is not a tactic we believe in in any circumstance,” he said.

Not ‘thugs,’ residents contend

In November, STOP solicited signatures for a petition showing opposition to the projects. The push for business owners, managers and employees was allegedly so strong that some signed under pressure and later retracted their positions. Letters of neutrality came back to the city from businesses like Burgerville, Wells Fargo Bank, McDonalds and U.S. Bank.

According to a Jan. 7 letter to the council from Ed Sullivan, an LOT attorney: “Several business owners have met with our representatives only to report that their opposition is based on the fear of losing their leases, rent increases or of an organized boycott. Other owners reported they have been asked to contribute money to fund opposition costs in order to demonstrate ‘which side they are on.’ ”

The letter continues to state that the campaign is “disturbing and well beyond the boundaries of what we should expect from our fellow citizens engaged in civic debate.”

At the end of November, Jeff Selby, LOT citizen information coordinator, paid visits to Robinwood businesses. He met with 21 business owners, franchise operators and managers of 18 businesses on Highway 43. Many reported having been contacted by the opposition and expressed neutrality; however, a few still opposed the projects.

According to Selby’s report, Burgerville managers said, “A guy came in and said the partnership was going to block access and tear up the streets during the day for two to three years, so we all signed the petitions.”

“To the best of our understanding there was one conversation with an employee at the West Linn Burgerville that could have been handled better. If it was construed as heavy handed, certainly (that was) not intended,” West Linn First member and former STOP manager Dave Froode said. “Since then we have had discussions with all of our people about being positive and ever so careful in the comments used.”

Tigard Public Works Director Dennis Koellermeier held five conversations with five businesses, according to a Jan. 4 letter to LOT Project Director Joel Komarek. He stated there was a theme of “concern or fear of retaliation if (businesses) spoke out in favor of the project. One of the citizens I spoke with is also a long-time business owner in West Linn who stated he could not risk losing clients. ... The other three conversations were similar but focused on the fear of being intimidated or shouted at by the opposition if they went public with a position of support.”

No ‘clout’ to make threats

Gerber said members of West Linn First have gone to area businesses soliciting petition signatures and donations, but did not threaten businesses. He said they don’t have any “clout” to make threats.

In the same Jan. 4 letter, Selby reported that businesses were told by the opposition that their jobs would be in jeopardy if they didn’t sign the petitions; that one business was reluctant to support the project and feared rent would be increased because his or her property manager is involved in the opposition; and that another business representative felt his “arm was twisted.”

“These conversations with business owners made it clear that some were coerced or threatened into opposing the project out of fear of retribution,” the letter stated.

“Even if it’s just the perception of feeling compelled, it is something we don’t want in our community,” Jordan said. “There are no formal complaints, but we are reaching out to the Robinwood businesses in a positive way.”

On June 6, the city sent out letters to area businesses that outlined the projects and how the city and LOT are working to “take care” of businesses, an effort that includes a “shop local” campaign.

“If any business felt that way, we would be apologetic,” Gerber said. “It sounds like a misunderstanding. I can only think it’s something the opposition is blowing out of proportion.”

Froode said, “Given the fact there are many people involved in this issue, there are many words spoken and actions taken. There are bound to be mistakes, especially among lay people like us. Those we oppose would like to paint the picture we are thugs. But I think you know better.”

Questions target some opponents’ motives

What some are questioning is the Robinwood Shopping Center owner and manager’s strong opposition to the projects. Both More and Glenda Waddle, the center’s manager, are listed on the STOP LLC, and More, who lives in New Orleans, is a claimant in the lawsuit. More did not return requests to comment.

Waddle said the businesses in the Robinwood Shopping Center will “definitely” be affected by the construction of the pipeline and will lose income.

According to a Jan. 14 letter from More to the city: “I and almost all small businesses along Highway 43 have officially opposed (the project). ... After a thorough study and review of the project details we decided that our tenants were indeed justified in their concerns about losing business and being financially harmed, and we decided to do everything that we could to help them.”

The letter continues, “Jeff Selby and Mr. Koellermeier write of people feeling pressured to oppose LOT’s plans and they state various alleged incidents, but it appears that LOT is the one trying to put pressure on people, and they just have not been able to bully them enough.”

On May 17, More’s attorney, Leonard Levenson, filed a petition to weigh in on the Land Use Board of Appeals process. According to the city manager, LUBA denied the request and it is now being appealed to the state Supreme Court. Levenson himself is currently under scrutiny for allegedly giving cash or gifts to a New Orleans judge, according to The Times-Picayune.

Additional concerns stem from fundraiser

In an effort to raise money to cover expenses related to the project appeal and the lawsuit, West Linn First held a Celebrate West Linn fundraiser event May 11 at the Robinwood Station community center. There was a silent and live auction and a raffle. According to a flier: “All proceeds will directly flow to the citizens’ effort to stop the LOT water treatment facility.”

According to West Linn First member Shanon Vroman, there is an “ongoing need to draw community together and to raise funds to help with the legal proceedings.” She said the event had multiple intentions: to raise money, answer questions and “expose what is going on.”

“Everybody and anybody who heard about it wanted to contribute,” Vroman said.

However, some businesses that donated to the raffles and auctions claim they felt pressured to donate or were not told what the money was going to be used for. Representatives of one business who wished not to be named said they thought their donation was going to support a completely different event, and when they learned afterward they felt “terrible.”

Gerber said, “It was never our intention to deceive anybody. It’s a little discouraging to hear these things. I feel like I want to negate that.”

According to Vroman, about 100 people attended Celebrate West Linn. Though she declined to say how much money was raised, she said it was more than the group had hoped for and was a “great indication/statement that a huge entity of this community is behind us and these legal actions.”

Vroman said, “Celebrate West Linn was birthed out of a necessity. Our community has been forced, by our own city council and mayor, to take legal action to protect our neighborhoods. This is a very costly fight that has been placed upon us as the taxpayers of this city.

“We are not a small group of angry citizens as has been stated. We are a peaceful group of homeowners and business owners, committed and highly involved community members, in our schools, in our churches and our businesses, who believe in the idea of being a good neighbor and being a part of creating a city of friends,” she said.

“As for any single individual involved in this project financing it, know the property owners in Robinwood have generated over $40,000 in support for this agenda. In addition there have been a number of local businesses in both West Linn and Oswego that have provided donations.” Froode said.

The clashes between neighbors, businesses and cities are not likely to end anytime soon as the appeal and lawsuit processes are lengthy. A LUBA decision is expected by the end of August.

“It’s just so unhealthy to have this type of behavior toward businesses or anyone,” Wyatt said.

The city urges businesses to file formal complaints to the police if they believe they are being harassed or a crime is being committed. Businesses may also contact Economic Development Director Chris Kerr.

“I think, as with any other potential issue of concern in a community, you should report it because you may not be alone,” Jordan said.

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