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ConAm development application denied

Commissioners said application did not meet code standards for mixed use development

TIDINGS FILE PHOTO: LESLIE PUGMIRE HOLE - After a process that extended over three meetings, the Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny ConAm's development application. ConAm may now appeal that denial to City Council. After an extended public hearing and a deliberation process drawn out over the course of three meetings, the West Linn Planning Commission on Sept. 9 unanimously voted to deny the latest development proposal by ConAm Properties, LLC.

About eight months after the West Linn City Council denied ConAm’s proposed zoning change to allow for “medium-high density, single and multiple family residential” construction at an 11-acre property at Tannler Drive and Blankenship Road, ConAm returned late this summer with a new application.

This time, ConAm revised its application to a mixed-use development featuring 180 apartment units and seven commercial spaces. The location has frontage on Blankenship Drive and is currently zoned Office-Business Center, which restricts development to businesses such as childcare facilities, hotel, fitness, professional and medical offices. It allows — as long as an unspecified amount of commercial development is included — multi-family housing.

Ultimately, while admitting the city’s code is ambiguous, the four Planning Commissioners felt that ConAm’s seven commercial spaces — each not to exceed 300 square feet — were not enough to qualify as mixed use development within buildings that would be primarily residential.

“I understand that the code is not well-written and I understand how the applicant got his reading of that code,” Planning Commission Chair Ryerson Schwark said. “But I think it’s sort of an absurd reading of that code, because if you took that reading, unfortunately it means that if I put a vending machine on the first floor of that building, I effectively adhere to that code.”

Other planning commissioners agreed and noted that while other concerns about traffic had been adequately addressed by ConAm, the fundamental issues with the city’s code were too much to overcome. Commissioners were particularly concerned about the placement of a parking garage on what was supposed to be a “commercial” first floor.

“Any reasonable reading would say that the first floor has to be commercial, and in no way do I see residential garages meeting that requirement,” Planning Commissioner Jesse Knight said. “It’s a sticking point that I don’t see how you get beyond.”

The commission’s findings stood in contrast to a final argument from ConAm attorney Michael Robinson, who urged the commission to stay above the fray and evaluate the application from a quasi-judicial perspective.

“You’re called upon to be above the politics and above what people want and instead to evaluate the facts as applied to the criteria,” Robinson said. “People should have a right to testify, but it’s not a headcount — it’s a quasi-judicial hearing.”

Robinson also noted that ConAm had agreed to a new condition of approval that would allow for left turns on Tannler Drive — alleviating a concern that had been expressed repeatedly during public testimony.

As for commercial spaces, Robinson said “there is no minimum size or amount of commercial use required in an Office-Business Center zone,” and added that many businesses in Portland Pearl District are about 300 square feet.

“No, it’s not an office tower, but yes it is a place for someone who wants to have a small business, and that is sorely lacking,” Robinson said.

Those arguments failed to convince the Planning Commission, and moving forward the commission still must adopt its formal findings before ConAm can file an appeal to the City Council.

“It’s not a certainty, but likely,” Community Development Director Chris Kerr said of a possible appeal.

If an appeal is filed, it would be addressed at a City Council meeting within 30 to 45 days, Kerr said. The Council would have the options of upholding the denial, remanding it back to the Planning Commission or overturning the Planning Commission’s decision.

Patrick Malee can be reached at 503-636-1281 Ext. 106 or pmalee@westlinntidings.com.