Cut the Red Tape remains source of controversy

by: TIDINGS GRAPHIC: VERN UYETAKE - After two public hearings and four work sessions, the West Linn Planning Commission remains skeptical about the city’s “Cut the Red Tape” code and streamlining project and has yet to make a final recommendation to city council.

A Sept. 4 public meeting saw the commission vote to revisit the debate at its meeting on Oct. 2 — the first date in which all seven commissioners would be available. The city council’s formal hearing to discuss the matter on Sept. 23 was then canceled to accommodate the planning commission’s schedule change.

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 more than two dozen 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.

The planning commission, however, has continued to express reservations about both the content and execution of the project. Though alterations were made to the city’s proposal since the first hearing on Aug. 7— including eliminating some items altogether — the commission continued to question the overarching goal of the project and what evidence existed to support changing the city’s code.

“There really is no research or analysis,” Planning Commission Chairman Michael Babbitt said at the Sept. 4 meeting. “You’re saying one thing and each of the planning commissioners is coming back and saying, ‘Well, we disagree,’ and what we’re all asking for is show us the research. Don’t sit there and continue to say, ‘Well, this is the benefit,’ without having anything to support that.”

“It’s difficult for us to make these kinds of decisions without that information,” Commissioner Nancy King said.

According to Associate Planner Zach Pelz, city staff came back with new information — including a matrix of the proposed amendments and how they would promote economic development — at the latest work session on Sept. 11. However, three commissioners — including Babbitt — were absent during that work session.

Still, Pelz came away from the work session feeling encouraged.

“We got through one more review of entire document, and the planning commission made tweaks,” Pelz said. “I think the members there were in agreement on the proposals.”

The amendments included in the Cut the Red Tape project cover everything from building applications to appeal fees and the city’s comprehensive plan, with the goal of spurring economic development in the city.

To that end, the plan includes a great deal of small but meaningful changes: simplifying the neighborhood association meeting protocol for property applicants; removing “broad, subjective” conditional use permit standards, including one that requires facilities to meet the “overall needs” of the community; and eliminating 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.

De novo hearings would only remain intact for appeals of planning director decisions, which are not made during public hearings and thus could benefit from the introduction of new information.

“Our city councilors established, ran on and got elected based on these priorities,” Economic Development Director Chris Kerr said. “I’ve talked about the whole economic development strategy, and this is just a small sliver. There’s much more to it.”

Some residents, however, saw not an opportunity for growth, but rather an attempt to strip power from neighborhood associations and the general public. As part of the code overhaul, the city proposed eliminating language that encourages city council to “actively support and encourage West Linn’s neighborhood associations,” while also shifting the final word on Class II design reviews from the planning commission to the planning director.

“It’s not by accident that West Linn is the city it is today,” said former West Linn Mayor Kathleen Lairson, who was one of the 12 citizens to testify at the Sept. 4 hearing. “You don’t want to have multi-lot development rested on one person, especially when they may not be and probably are not a citizen of city.

“We only make our best decisions when we have all of the people at the table.”

In response, Commissioner Christine Steel assured residents that the commission had no intention of approving limits on neighborhood associations.

“The planning commission has recommended not going there, not making any changes,” Steel said.

With regard to the power shift from the planning commission to the planning director, Kerr said the amendments would ease the burden on both city staff and the planning commissioners by eliminating unnecessary meetings and presentations for non-discretionary decisions — when the city is legally obligated to accept an application that meets all requirements.

“My proposal would still let you review all the applications,” Kerr said. “You can see all the testimonies, you can contribute all the comments you want to make, and you can even recommend conditions of approval to the planning director. So you’re not out of the loop.”

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