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'Red tape' project proves sticky for residents


Plan aims to build economic development in West Linn

by: TIDINGS GRAPHIC: VERN UYETAKE - A recommendation from the West Linn Planning Commission regarding the Cut the Red Tape code and process streamlining project will be pushed back until at least September, as city officials make a series of requested changes and clarifications in their proposal.

The project, which officially kicked off in April, is a key facet of the city’s effort to foster economic development in its commercial areas. The plan calls for 30 amendments to the West Linn Community Development Code, with the intent to “remove unnecessary, inefficient regulatory barriers associated with doing business in the city.”

In March, the West Linn City Council listed such amendments among its top priorities for 2013.

Last week’s planning commission meeting featured a public hearing on the matter, which saw a number of concerned residents voice opposition to the proposed amendments. Though West Linn Economic Development Director Chris Kerr noted survey results show a 90 percent approval rate of further development in commercial areas, public testimony illustrated a growing distrust in the planning process.

“I came here because when I read the document, it was quite striking to me the extent of the changes proposed,” resident Ramiah Ramasubramanian said. “(The plans are) going with a different philosophy, but where is the evidence that citizens support such a change?”

Ramasubramanian’s concerns were echoed throughout the public testimony portion of the meeting, but Kerr said this was a plan that had developed over a number of years as the need for economic growth became readily apparent.

“If our commercial areas are more successful, everyone benefits from that,” Kerr said. “We can’t just bury our heads and pretend we’ll always be a bedroom community. Long term, that’s a failing strategy.”

The 30 amendments included in the Cut the Red Tape project cover everything from building applications to appeal fees and the city’s comprehensive plan. As Kerr wrote in a memorandum to the planning commission on July 26, “the purpose of the proposed amendments is to modify our codes and processes to remove inefficient and unnecessary regulatory barriers to businesses and developers.”

To that end, the plan includes a great deal of small but meaningful changes: increasing the maximum height of commercial buildings from two-and-a-half to six stories (unless they are closer than 50 feet to a residential property line); simplifying the neighborhood association meeting protocol for property applicants; and removing “broad, subjective” conditional use permit standards, including one that requires facilities to meet the “overall needs of the community.”

Instead, facilities would be required to “not have significant adverse effects on the livability or usability of nearby properties.”

The amendments would also eliminate the city’s “de novo” or “as new” appeal hearing process, which allows applicants — such as the recent Lake Oswego-Tigard water treatment plant process — to revise their applications throughout the process.

Under the proposed amendments, city council decisions would be based on the entire record of proceedings along with arguments presented at the council hearing. No new evidence would be permitted to enter the record.

“De novo means anybody can walk in and raise a brand new issue and create a new hearing,” Kerr said. “We should make applicants present their best case. The public should know that; otherwise, it diminishes the value of a planning commission meeting.”

If Kerr and his fellow city officials see the project as a necessary step toward economic development, residents who attended the public hearing Aug. 7 expressed concerns with both the content of the plan and how it was presented to the community.

“When I see some of these things, they just came out of the blue here,” resident Brenda Perry said. “To me, this seems like a contractor’s referendum. ... This is their dream. But they will build and they will leave. They will leave us with overcrowding, traffic issues, high buildings and not a livable West Linn anymore.”

Indeed, a major point of contention during the hearing was whether economic development should be a city priority in the first place.

“This seems like a philosophy change, a shift from the current code that focused on economic development to retain the quiet residential character of West Linn,” said another resident, Jenne Henderson. “And now there’s a shift to more commercial involvement. ... Is that what West Linn wants?”

In response, Kerr said economic development has been a city priority for a number of years now, and “what this proposes is not expanding business areas but to make the existing ones more vibrant. ... We’re not changing the zoning in any areas.”

After hearing residents’ criticisms and airing a few of their own, planning commissioners voted 6-1 in favor of re-noticing the project to allow for the city to make proposed changes and corrections before the next planning commission meeting on Sept. 4. The first public notice document submitted by the city mistakenly excluded four proposed amendments and also listed chapters of the CDC that would not actually be amended.

“We need to make sure we do this right,” said Michael Babbitt, commission chairman. “It’s not that I want it re-noticed because I want to be a pain. I do think it benefits everyone, including the city council when it gets this, that it’s well vetted and done correctly.”

Other planning commission members cited citizen engagement as a reason to delay the process, although Kerr said in a later interview that, contrary to suggestions otherwise, all parties had been properly notified about the project.

“With this project, what we printed up back in March included reaching out in a lot of different ways,” Kerr said.

He noted that, in addition to standard public hearing notifications before planning commission and city council meetings, the city also sent press releases to local media outlets, distributed more than 250 informational postcards throughout the community, emailed all licensed business owners in West Linn and twice sent out informational handouts to households via mail.

“I don’t understand how anyone could have been surprised by this project,” Kerr said.

The planning commission held another work session to discuss the project on Wednesday.

To learn more, visit westlinnoregon.gov/economicdevelopment/cut-red-tape.