Agreement draws scrutiny as water plant construction is delayed

SUBMITTED FILE PHOTO - The LOT project is often lamented by Robinwood residents who have to endure the disruption caused by the construction. 'It's miserable,' said Robinwood resident and Planning Commissioner Lorie Griffith. When a Lake Oswego-Tigard Water partnership representative appeared before the City Council on Feb. 9 to discuss an impending delay in construction of the water treatment plant in the Robinwood neighborhood, the tension within the council chambers was palpable.

The project has been contentious since its inception: The Planning Commission voted against it. A group of residents rallied in opposition to it. And, the council’s decision to approve the project was a key issue in the November 2014 election that saw the defeat of incumbent councilors Jody Carson and Mike Jones.

Lorie Griffith, a member of the current Planning Commission who lives in a home directly adjacent to the LOT construction site, describes the construction-related upheaval in her neighborhood as “miserable.”

Now, a project that has caused so much turmoil in West Linn was being prolonged. No one was happy about the news.

The harshest words from City Council members during that Feb. 9 meeting were directed at LOT Project Director Joel Komarek. He responded that he understood their concerns but was not ready to commit to the specific mitigation actions that were suggested.

Residents in attendance were also critical of LOT, but some put the onus for the delay — or, at least, West Linn’s lack of legal recourse to address it — on the city itself.

“Is there no West Linn city oversight of this project?” resident Yvonne Davis said. “How could a surprise of this magnitude be hitting us at this late date? Heads should be rolling in this building and LOT management.”

The Slayden Construction Group announced in December that a project to expand and replace the LOT water treatment plant in West Linn would be delayed for approximately 11 months. Though the majority of the $250 million project — designed to increase capacity to deliver drinking water from the Clackamas River to Lake Oswego and Tigard — will be completed by summer of 2016, final completion of the water plant in Robinwood is not expected until early 2017, according to LOT.

Since that original announcement, mitigation efforts — such as six-day, 56-hour work weeks — have cut the delay to nine months, Komarek said.

The delay came as a disappointing surprise to council members, who, at that Feb. 9 meeting, asked for City Attorney Chris Crean to review the original LOT agreement and determine if there were any legal measures for the city to enforce the project’s original timeline. Crean reported that a strict timetable was not included in the conditions of approval for the project, thus leaving the city with no legal recourse in this situation.

City Manager Chris Jordan, for his part, said that this was not an oversight.

SUBMITTED FILE PHOTO - Some, like former Planning Commission Chair Michael Babbitt, wonder why the city did not take further measures to prevent an extended delay in the project.

“As far as I know and as far as our staff knows, we have never conditioned anything on that kind of schedule, nor, quite frankly, can anyone remember a city ever doing that,” Jordan said.

However, former West Linn Planning Commission Chair Michael Babbitt, who voted against the project at the Planning Commission level, said that a stricter timeline should have been considered for this project.

“If the timeline was so important, it should have been included as a condition,” Babbitt said. “This would then require the applicant to come back to the approval body and have the condition removed or modified. This would also give the city leverage in negotiating additional compensation to the city for the delay.

“All of the council members were former members of the Planning Commission, and should have known they needed to get everything in writing instead of accepting a smile and the, ‘we want to be a good neighbor.’”

Jordan said that the city’s code does include a regulation that allows a permit to expire if “substantial completion” of a project does not occur within three years. Beyond that, the city does not hold construction projects to any strict timeframe.

“I’ve asked other cities, ‘Is this something that you do?’” Assistant City Manager Kirsten Wyatt said. “And just with the nature of construction projects, it would be highly unusual.”

“We would like LOT to get the project done as fast as possible,” Jordan said. “And I have no doubt LOT would like to get this done as fast as possible.”

According to Lake Oswego Assistant Planning Director Hamid Pishvaie, the rules are similar in West Linn’s neighboring city.

“Sometime back, we started imposing conditions that construction should complete within three years of the date of approval, and that was codified in the community development code,” Pishvaie said. “If the applicant comes in and voluntarily says, ‘We will complete this in two years,’ and don’t, honestly it can go many ways. If there’s no condition, there’s nothing to obligate them to that performance.”

Pishvaie declined to comment on whether West Linn erred in not holding LOT to its own timetable, which was originally set for about 28 months.

Griffith, the planning commissioner who lives next to LOT construction, said the delay was disappointing, but not necessarily surprising.

“I think it would be unreasonable to expect anything to finish on time — I don’t know of other agreements that encompass the magnitude of this project,” Griffith said. “It’s a huge project, it’s like building a highway or an airport, and they’re very constricted with what they can do on the site.”

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