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Tour to launch street effort

— After hearing an explanation of the basic issues relating to street and storm water improvements and how they affect residential development, The Dalles Planning Commission members decided a field trip is in order.

The issue has become more urgent for some people in the community, even if they haven’t signed the waivers that could require them to put in future improvements.

“There’s a city-wide perception that anybody who doesn’t have streets and storm sewers is going to get slapped with some kind of improvement cost,” said Mary Merrill, who lives on East 10th Street in The Dalles. “It’s not an information problem. It’s a perception problem and it’s already having an effect on the sale of houses.”

Merrill’s house was built in 1949 and it doesn’t have a waiver of remonstrance on file that could be used to force her to pay for public improvements, but a potential buyer withdrew an offer all the same after reading a story in The Chronicle about the conflicts surrounding properties that are subject to such requirements.

Merrill suggested the city look at swales to absorb runoff as a more affordable option to storm sewers. She also suggested the city look for broader public resources like state and federal funding to develop 10th Street more fully with bike paths and other amenities as an alternative travel route, since it is the only street other than Second Street that runs the length of the city.

But that wouldn’t solve the problems of other residents who live off 10th in the eastern part of town.

Part of the city’s challenge stems from the fact that residential development in The Dalles doesn’t occur in a linear fashion, said Dick Gassman, director of the city’s Community and Economic Development Department. Houses are built on land far distant from the established city street and storm sewer systems.

While street improvements have long been required for new residential development, many of the areas outside the city’s core had been developed before they were annexed into the city and don’t have city-level street improvements.

Just building a street in these areas isn’t so simple. Storm sewers are a key element to street development in The Dalles. Its rocky topography in many places means rain water doesn’t just seep into the ground. Instead, it can cause problematic runoff.

Storm sewers and streets need to be engineered to connect with the existing system, Gassman said. That’s a tall order when the nearest street and storm sewer connection is a mile or more away.

Thus, the city turned to a variety of options to assure future development, the most familiar of which is the waiver of remonstrance form.

“It’s not something that’s unique to The Dalles,” Gassman said. “As far as I know, all cities have them.”

Other methods include prepayment for future improvements and a delayed development agreement not tied to local improvement districts.

These agreements have historically been tied to development and made at the property owner’s expense. Typically, an individual property owner is responsible for one half of a fully improvement residential street; i.e., 16 feet of paving width, a six-inch curb and a five-foot sidewalk. In most circumstances, the street would also include a city water main, sanitary sewer main and storm water pipe. If these utilities are not already in the right of way, then the property owner is responsible for extending them to the far end of the property, according to Gassman’s report to the commission.

When that requirement is triggered has been the key bone of contention. Until HB 3479 passed in the 2013 Oregon Legislature, the city considered creation of new lots — known as minor partitions — or the addition of a dwelling unit as a trigger. But property owners wishing to partition their property were seeing the prospect of prepayment bills for as much as $150,000 for a large property. In response, they appealed for the legislature’s help. After bringing city rules in alignment with HB 3479, The Dalles City Council told the planning commission to make a further review of residential development rules.

Gassman laid out a list of 11 questions the planning commission might consider, including the most basic: Should the city require public improvements at all?

Others include:

• Should adjacent property owners be responsible for public improvements? Current policy, yes.

• Should adjacent property owners be responsible for the full range of public improvements? Current policy, yes.

• When should public improvements be triggered?

• Should the city require any public improvements at the time of subdivision? Current policy, full improvement.

• Should the city require any improvements at the time of dwelling building permit?

• Should the city allow new dwellings only on streets that are fully improved or can be made so at construction? Not current policy.

• What deferral options should the city use?

• Should the city change street standards for residential collector streets? Would Americans with Disabilities Act affect any of these decisions?

• Should the city review the standards for any street without installation of a storm water system?

• Should the same requirements apply to all residential developments, including those associated with both minor partitions and subdivisions, to address the potential for “serial minor partitions as an avenue to avoid development requirements?

“If the city determines that public improvements are not required, then the discussion goes down a much different path,” Gassman said.

If improvements are required, then only two options exist, either require improvements at the time of development or delay them to a later date.

“The advantages of deferral are obvious, but over time the disadvantages have also become obvious,” Gassman said. The main challenge is trying to get the property owner to pay at a later date.

Commissioners raised a number of questions related to their task: From whether property taxes on new development could pay for street improvements to what role cities actually play in the lives of their residents.

Gassman noted that the problem the planning commission is expected to deal with is one cities all around the country continue to struggle with. He pointed to “Up Out of the Mud,” Portland street initiative, which noted that 60 miles of the city’s streets are still gravel and 167 miles have no curb or sidewalk. The initiative has scaled back design requirements on some streets with the idea that “something is better than nothing,” but noted that even with lower-cost design standards many property owners find the assessments too expensive.

“So we’re being asked to solve a problem that nobody has been able to solve,” said Commissioner Dennis Whitehouse.

Commissioners plan to prioritize the list of questions in Gassman’s report, but first want to get a better idea of physical conditions, so guided by planning and public works officials, they will tour city streets to see what the challenges of street development look like in the field.

They will meet again to prioritize the questions at their regular Thursday, Nov. 21, meeting at 6 p.m. in City Hall.

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