Southwest neighbors lose a round in court, consider new strategy

A group of neighbors in Southwest Portland will not be granted a temporary injunction to stop the city of Portland from selling the Freeman Water Tank property to a private developer, a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge ruled Friday.

Although the judge agreed the process the city followed was flawed, he said it was legally sufficient. Now the neighbors must decide whether to take their case to trial or give up and allow three homes to be built on the property.

“We need to explore our legal options now,” says Moses Ross, chairman of the Multnomah Neighborhood Association that filed for the injunction. “Lawyers get expensive, and we are just a neighborhood association without the type of deep pockets that the developer or the city may have.”

Ross says opponents of the property sale are down, but not necessarily out.

“We’re disappointed that we didn’t get a preliminary injunction, but we were heartened that the court did appear to agree with us that the city did not provide adequate notification of the sale,” Ross says. “We’re discouraged by the ruling, but we’re not discouraged with our desire to continue to go forward and to try to prevent the sale.”

For going on six months, the neighbors, who call themselves the Woods Park Advocates for the natural area nearby, have been mounting opposition to the sale of the .76-acre property by the Portland Water Bureau to Lake Oswego-based custom homebuilder Renaissance Homes.

The property is in Southwest Portland’s Multnomah neighborhood and includes a decommissioned 335,000-gallon water tank. It was one of eight Water Bureau-owned properties declared surplus and marked for sale in an ordinance approved by the Portland City Council in June 2010. In early January 2012 a neighbor of the property, Bill Cely, expressed interest in purchasing the property, but eventually backed out, and in September 2012 Renaissance Homes, intending to use it for infill development, agreed to acquire the property from the Water Bureau for a promissory note of $1,000 and a total purchase price of $140,000.

The problem, the opponents say, is that no one knew the details of the pending sale or even that the property was for sale at all until neighbor Jeremy Solomon happened to call the Water Bureau and inquire about the property.

The opponents formed an ad hoc subcommittee of the Multnomah Neighborhood Association, hired attorney Kristian S. Roggendorf to represent them in their fight to stop the sale on the grounds that there wasn’t enough public notice about the property being earmarked for sale and subsequently being sold, and that the purchase price was a lowball figure that violated both the terms of the City Council ordinance and state law.

On Jan. 16, wanting to avoid two potential lawsuits — one by the opponents and one by Renaissance — City Commissioner Nick Fish, who is in charge of the Water Bureau, proposed via a letter from Deputy City Attorney Terence L. Thatcher that the Water Bureau, Renaissance and the opponents enter into three-way mediation.

The opponents agreed; Renaissance did not, and on Jan. 28 Roggendorf filed a writ on behalf of Ross and two other officers of the Multnomah Neighborhood Association against the city. The next day, Renaissance agreed to postpone the sale date two weeks from the original closing date of Jan. 31.

At the Feb. 14 injunction hearing, Roggendorf told Judge Henry Kantor that, although his clients “would appreciate if the city keep this as a park,” the primary issue was with the process the city followed in selling the property, offering little public notice and thus, he said, violating the terms of the council ordinance.

The city attorney’s office defended the process the bureau followed, saying it resulted in a fair sale price. Kantor said the process was more of a “concept,” but found it legally sufficient.

Kantor added that although the city should have been more explicit in its wording, Renaissance had followed the letter of the law at every stage of the sale.

“This is a situation where there’s a private offer, a good standing that made an investment with the city, not knowing that the city may not have followed the details of this statue that’s never been applied before, and they put their money into this. They’ve already suffered losses,” Kantor said.

With that in mind, “I want you to really continue talking or trying to figure out what’s going to happen next in a commonsense, practical way so that everybody’s interest are being protected as much as possible,” Kantor said. “If the citizens want to engage in the political process ... that can go on, and probably will.”

According to Moses: “No matter the outcome, I think the neighborhood and the residents can hold their heads very high here knowing that they stood up for something they believed in. From that sense I feel a lot of pride in the residents in the neighborhood association.

“That’s why we’re here in the neighborhood association: to give them a voice.”

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