Damascus voters make big decision in how to craft city’s comprehensive plan
POSTED: Monday, March 12, 2012 at 03:33 PM PT
Daily Journal of Commerce BY: Lee Fehrenbacher
City governance can be a thankless job – especially when land-use laws are involved.
“We’re not evil people like all the articles say,” said Diana Helm, president of Damascus City Council and owner of Terra Casa Home Decor on Oregon Route 212. “We’re just citizen volunteers. We’re giving our time to the city to try to put together a comprehensive plan to make the bulk of the people happy … and at this point it’s just impossible. It’s impossible. I’ve never in my life felt hopeless, and I feel hopeless about Damascus and where we’re headed.”
Damascus, incorporated as a city in 2006, is required by state law to adopt a comprehensive plan. But six years later, the city is still at square one, and Damascus voters rejected a proposed comprehensive plan its counselors adopted in November 2010, by a two-to-one margin.
On Tuesday, residents will vote on Measure 3-389, which would require any new city ordinance or plan adopted by the council to be accompanied by a financial impact report and be subject to a public vote before the council could submit it to Metro or the state.
Helm believes the measure – generally expected to pass – is vague to a fault and could clog the system with futile processes.
“I think (some people) think if they vote it down then we don’t have to have a comprehensive plan,” she said. “But that’s not true. We’re required by the state to have one, and if we don’t do it, then one very well could be put on us by the state and it might not be the one we’ve been working on.”
But Dan Phegley, chief petitioner for the measure and leader of a group called Ask Damascus, sees it differently. Phegley said he thinks the planning process has been exclusive and covert, giving rise to his battle cry, “They didn’t ask us in Damascus.”
“What we’re really up against is Metro and their forced land-use planning,” Phegley said. “Metro is a regional government that has been sending out disciples all over the world, but they’ve never gotten anyone to copy it and so they’re a big believer in spending money, and light rail is their religion.”
The city of Damascus recently conducted a phone survey to find out why people voted against the proposed comprehensive plan. Helm said the results weren’t too surprising.
Some people, she said, were concerned about conservation, and others worried about preservation of property rights. But many people just didn’t want growth.
“Most of the people moved here to get out of the city, to live in a rural community and not grow up,” Helm said. “Being in the urban growth boundary has been a big pill for people to swallow.”
That pill came in December 2002, when Metro expanded its UGB to include Damascus.
Robin McArthur, Metro’s planning and development director, said that expansion was the result of an urban growth report that Metro conducts every five years to identify the need for housing and jobs on a 20-year horizon.
In 2000, the population in the seven-county statistical area was 1.9 million people with approximately 973,000 jobs, according to Metro’s 2009-2030 Urban Growth Report. Metro estimates there is a 90 percent chance that by 2030 the population will grow to between 2.9 million and 3.2 million people, with between 1.3 million and 1.7 million jobs.
McArthur said Metro chose Damascus for the UGB expansion because, at the time, the state’s primary focus was on preserving farmland and forestland. However, Damascus, she said, has a lot of “exception lands” – open land not primed for farming.
State laws have since changed to protect more exception lands through urban and rural reserves for the benefit of businesses like wineries, vineyards and nurseries – often the first to go in a UGB expansion, McArthur said.
“So we changed state law and … if the new urban and rural reserve work had been in place, we may or may not have brought in Damascus,” she said. “But that’s water under the bridge.”
The controversy continues
Meanwhile, Damascus is struggling to comply with state requirements; the city’s incorporation in 2006 was arguably the first attempt by citizens to control the process. But with that move came a controversial price tag for the cost to provide infrastructure for development – $3.5 billion. That estimate motivated Phegley.
“They later did a study on the sewer and water supply, and that was between $2 billion and $8 billion,” he said. “That’s a heck of a spread and when you’re talking about a town of 12,000 people. We’re talking $300,000 per household, well over.”
John Morgan, Damascus’ community development director – the man tasked with forging a path forward for the city’s comprehensive planning process – said that interpretation of the costs for infrastructure is, “frankly, ludicrous.”
Morgan said the original estimate for infrastructure – i.e., sewer treatment, water treatment, a major sewer trunk line and extensions to new development – was $3.5 billion spread out over 50 years. He said most of that money would come from system development charges placed on developers, with some community block grants and/or bond measures picking up a small remainder of the balance.
“So the thought that the $3.5 billion is going to be paid for by the existing residents of Damascus is just completely out of the ballpark from how this stuff works,” Morgan said.
Meanwhile, Peter Walker, a University of Oregon professor and the author of the book “Planning Paradise – Politics and Visioning of Land Use in Oregon,” said the story of Damascus is indicative of a greater problem stewing in Oregon.
“(Damascus is) a symptom of a bigger problem of the state land-use planning system, which is that in many ways it’s really sort of lost touch with ordinary people and local communities, and needs to take seriously the concerns of local people, and actively engage in a bilateral and substantive process of political negotiation with communities,” Walker said. “Rather than saying, ‘By the power of fiat, this community will now become part of the city.’ ”
Instead of asking Damascus residents if they wanted to be included in the UGB, Walker said Metro started the conversation by saying, “ ‘This is going to happen. Can we work with you to try and make it happen in a way that you can live with it?’ ”
The answer, at least so far, has been a resounding “no.” But Morgan said he has a plan.
“It makes more sense to me to create a plan that revolves around the core values (of Damascus) in how it’s written and formatted, rather than the statewide planning goals,” he said.
Morgan said the original plan, the one rejected last May, took the exact opposite approach. Rather than centering around the legacy the city hopes to establish for itself, Morgan said the city previously made the state’s 14 land-use goals the top priority.
McArthur said she understands that some people are dissatisfied with Metro’s decision to bring Damascus into the UGB. But she added that the process also involves an extensive period of research and public hearings.
“I think the idea behind the comprehensive plan is for the community to manifest its own destiny, and Damascus has that opportunity as well,” she said.
Morgan said decisions will be reviewed to assess whether they align with citizens’ hopes. And by traveling that path, he said, meeting the state’s requirements should be a breeze.
Phegley is skeptical. He believes a comprehensive plan is not representative of the will of the people and that Measure 3-389 will bring accountability to local government.
Morgan, hoping to get buy-in from the citizens, doesn’t think the measure will hinder the process one bit.
Whatever happens, the winds of change are coming.
“The community is going to urbanize,” Morgan said. “That is a fundamental fact of change that is real. There is an extreme transformation that is going to occur over the next 40 to 50 years, and since that change is going to happen, how do we make that acceptable and desirable for the vast majority of the citizens of Damascus?
“That’s a challenge, and it’s a big one.”