Planning Commission: Proposed excavation not suitable for neighborhood

The St. Helens Planning Commission decided unanimously to deny a permit sought by a developer seeking to raze a north St. Helens bluff Tuesday, July 8.

Commissioners said the proposed removal of the outcropping and rock beneath it appears to violate city ordinances prohibiting mining and quarrying in residential areas.

The commission’s decision to deny the sensitive lands permit for which S. St. Helens LLC applied last year caps a process set in motion last August, when the developer filed an appeal of City Planner Jacob Graichen’s administrative decision against the permit.

The developer wants to remove the bluff between North 10th and 12th streets, along with up to 18 feet of bedrock beneath the surface grade, in order to make way for residential development.

However, property-owners in the neighborhood — including the St. Helens School District, which has its administrative office and three campuses in the same part of town — voiced opposition to the project. They have said the process of removing the bluff would have a considerable impact on them and their property.

The Planning Commission agreed with many of the opponents’ arguments Tuesday.

“The question begs whether this is primarily an attempt to remove such a substantial amount of aggregate from the site, or whether it’s a legitimate proposal to develop residences in this area,” said Commissioner Greg Cohen.

Commissioners referred several times to testimony given at a May public hearing by John Jersey, who owns the excavation company in Scappoose that would likely be conducting the bluff removal itself if the project were approved.

Jersey acknowledged in his testimony that the basalt rock from the bluff — up to 500,000 cubic yards — would be repurposed “in order to make the project seriously viable” and provide “a benefit” to the developer. He also said the process of excavation could take up to 16 months, with blasting taking place about once per week, crews working for as long as 11 hours throughout the day for as many as six days per week, and “constant” movement of trucks to and from the excavation site.

Commissioner Russell Hubbard said the developer’s apparent interest in removing more basalt than necessary for development in order to sell it suggested the project would be “a commercial enterprise.”

“Clearly, sale prices of the rock [are] outstripping the likely purchase prices of whatever they build on top of it,” Commissioner Kathryn Lawrence added. “And from my point of view, that is essential to our discussion and clearly shows the intent to mine.”

The commissioners rejected the applicant’s contention that basalt is not considered a mineral in the city’s definition of mining and agreed with Graichen’s conclusion that it would be possible for the bluff site to be developed without the extensive excavation being proposed.

S. St. Helens LLC was represented throughout the appeal process by Lake Oswego-based attorney Andrew Stamp and a team of consultants.

Stamp told commissioners Tuesday he objected to what he called “all the evidence that was produced tonight” during their deliberations. He suggested the commission’s decision may be appealed to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, although he told the Spotlight after the vote that he would have to consult with his client before determining whether to file another appeal with the state.

Planning Commission Chairman Al Petersen did not participate in the appeal hearing. Vice Chairman Dan Cary filled in, presiding over the commission.

Graichen’s preliminary decision on the permit application last July favored the bluff removal project. But after neighbors protested and said the bluff removal would be tantamount to mining, Graichen reversed himself and issued a final decision saying the project would have an unacceptable impact on protected wetlands and contradicted city code that restricts mining and quarrying operations to heavy industrial areas.

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