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A break for landowners?

A subcommittee of The Dalles Planning Commission is recommending two changes to city policy that could make it less expensive for some property owners to develop lots.

“In a lot of cases, the standards have to come down for anything to be built — if it doesn’t pencil out, it doesn’t get built,” said Loyal Quackenbush, a member of the Standards Subcommittee.

He is also a landowner who has spent the last seven years disputing the $150,000 price tag attached by the city to creation of a second lot on his east side property.

Quackenbush volunteered to serve on the work group that formed a couple of months ago to find ways to end a long-running citizen dispute over development costs. The subcommittee was tasked with finding solutions to the challenge of upgrading infrastructure to meet growth needs. A Finance Subcommittee was also formed to explore options of covering expenses for that work.

The Standards group decided at a Jan. 9 meeting to make these recommendations to the planning commission:

• Elimination of waivers of remonstrance that prohibit a property owner from protesting formation of a Local Improvement District to assess street frontage for infrastructure upgrades. The agreement has been obtained from the original developer in lieu of requiring that improvements be undertaken. By signing the document, the owner agrees not to protest formation of an LID to cover the cost of that work in the future.

• Creating a flexible street improvement plan so that curbs, sidewalks and storm drains are not required on more rural lots at the edge of town and along less developed streets. The current policy sets uniform standards for upgrades no matter where the roadway is located.

The planning commission is expected to review these recommendations at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 6, at City Hall, 313 Court Street. If approved, the proposals will be forwarded to the city council for a final decision.

The enactment of House Bill 3479 in July 2013 ended the city’s ability to require waivers from landowners seeking a minor partition. However, officials have yet to decide how to deal with agreements already on record or required for other types of development.

The problem with waivers, said subcommittee members last week, is that infrastructure improvements might not take place for decades, by which time the cost is much higher. And a new property owner is then bound by the terms of the document that he or she did not sign.

In October, the city council eliminated the waiver of an East Ninth Street couple after they appealed the $60,000 to $80,000 cost for upgrades attached to their property.

Sean and Kindra Manning told officials that two buyers had walked away from a purchase of their home because of that potential expense.

The first waiver had been signed in 1994 by a previous owner when the land was partitioned into two lots. The second in 1996 when another home was built on the land.

“I never signed either of those agreements,” said Kindra. “The costs that are being quoted to prospective buyers by the city are approximately 40 percent of the value of our home.”

Nolan Young, city manager, suggested last summer that deferred development agreements replace the waivers. He said these agreements would obligate landowners to pay for street improvements at the time construction began, which created financial certainty for the city.

Members of the subcommittee said Jan. 9 that these agreements basically work the same as waivers, which they opposed.

The city has not been able to get a residential LID in place without waivers for more than 16 years. These proposals, such as the assessment for upgrading Thompson Street in 2012, have been met with strong citizen opposition due to the expense.

The city council decided to have the standards work group research options after HB 3479 was signed into law by Gov. John Kitzhaber. The legislation to change the way The Dalles did business was sought by Quackenbush and other east side landowners who opposed the high cost attached to development standards.

These property holders objected to the requirement that they prepay $50,000 to more than $150,000 for street improvements when they create a new lot.

Randy Hager is one of the landowners who sought help from Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, the sponsor of HB 3479. He is among those still looking at an expensive bill — $80,000 in his case — for a partition. He lives in the urban growth area that will one day be annexed and city staffers have interpreted the new law to be applicable only to residents in town.

Dave Hunnicutt, president of Oregonians in Action, a private property rights advocacy group, wrote HB 3479 and said it was intended to apply to all lands managed by the city. He said while properties in the urban growth area are under county jurisdiction, the city is the entity in charge of overseeing development.

He said if the city and county did not eliminate the partition fee on outlying lots to comply with HB 3479, he would ask the legislature to intervene in the upcoming session, or his organization would take legal action.

At last Thursday’s subcommittee meeting, Hager said Oregonians in Action had outlined in its most recent newsletter the intent to have the legislature impose limitations on the use of LIDs as a means to pay for new infrastructure.

“While LIDs are a valuable tool for providing needed improvements to a local area, they are also subject to abuse by overreaching local politicians,” states the newsletter.

“In some cases the LID assessment to a property is so high that the amount exceeds the value of the property. In others, the owner of the property is simply unable to pay for the assessment, which is imposed upon them by the city.”

Chris Zukin, representing the planning commission on the work group, said it was his hope that the issues involving development standards in The Dalles could be resolved at the local level instead of by state officials.

Toward that end, he proposed the compromise plan of allowing more adaptability with improvements on roadways not identified as main arterials or collectors.

He said if citizens wanted more than basic infrastructure on side streets, or those at the outer edge of the city, they could initiate formation of an LID.

“We really need to be very flexible because we are dealing with a whole spectrum of lots,” he said.

Dick Gassman, director of the city’s planning department, asked if there would be criteria put in place to provide a baseline for upgrades.

“General guidelines but nothing that is set in stone,” replied Zukin. “It will have to be decided on a case-by-case basis what makes sense and what doesn’t.”

Bruce Lavier, chair of the planning commission, said he believed the city, as a stakeholder in street improvements, should also be tasked with coming up with money to cover the costs.

“It’s pleasing and wonderful for me to hear that we can come to some agreement about what we can do,” said Hager after the two recommendations were decided upon.

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