The City Council approved a zoning change for property located at the corner of Chapel Drive and South 19th Street, where a developer plans to build multifamily housing. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

A property owner with an eye on building multiplex housing on the corner of South 19th Street and Chapel Drive cleared a hurdle Monday night with the Philomath City Council’s approval of an application to rezone four parcels from medium- to high-density residential.

The decision occurred following the continuation of a public hearing on the rezoning application that originally went before councilors in December. Concerns had surfaced over the project’s impact on infrastructure with most of the comments directed toward traffic.

The traffic issue was again at the forefront of the conversation on Monday night with many comments directed toward the school zone located about a thousand feet from the development up South 19th. And while those concerns were among those heavily discussed, the council as a whole in the end felt that there was no valid reason to deny the rezoning request.

Mayor Chas Jones and Councilor Ruth Causey both voiced their opinions that there is a real need for housing in the community. And Councilor Christopher McMorran backed that up with his own personal experience of trying to live in his hometown.

“As a young person who wants to live in this city because I grew up here and I love this city, it was so hard to find an apartment to rent,” McMorran said, who is less than two months into his term as a city councilor. “And I know there’s lots of comments like, oh, ‘we just built so many apartments’ … great, try renting one. It’s hard, those things are full. There are people that want to live here that cannot find housing.”

McMorran said it took him several months to find a place to rent that he could afford in Philomath.

“I think there are other people like me that have something to offer this city that we are pricing out and that we are not allowing to live here because we refuse to build enough housing,” McMorran said.

The city’s findings of fact on the application were updated to include the statement that at maximum development, the residential site would have an impact of no more than 1.2% of total unused water capacity. And as far as traffic counts, the site’s impact on daily trips would be well below capacity.

Traffic circulation discussion

In October, the City Council and Philomath School Board met in a joint work session to discuss traffic circulation and identify areas of concern. A location that prompted a lot of discussion was not far from the proposed development — a stretch on South 19th where parents will often drop off and pick up kindergarten and first grade students.

The city placed a traffic radar sign last month on South 19th just south of the roadway that leads to Clemens Primary School and Philomath Middle School to collect count data. The results showed the greatest average morning peak traffic counts, which was from 7-8 a.m., at 93 trips. The greatest afternoon peak traffic counts, which was between 2-3 p.m., averaged out to 65 trips.

“As a major collector, South 19th Street is designed for 2,500 to 5,000 average daily trips,” the city reported. “Using the rations of trips each hour that was collected by the radar sign in January, this calculates to peak capacity of 638 trips in the AM peak hour and 581 trips in the PM peak hour.”

The city staff’s numbers illustrated its point that the development would have no major impact on traffic.

Following discussion on various points brought up earlier by those who testified along with councilors’ own questions, Jessica Andrade made a motion to deny the application.

“I think safety traffic concerns are too numerous and voiced by so many people in the community already,” Andrade said. “We’ve identified areas of concern and potential ways of addressing it and so I think it makes more sense to try to address those concerns first and at a later date, who knows?”

Councilor Teresa Nielson said collector streets that run through school zones are for her an issue.

“We’re talking about little ones, we’re talking about little children,” Nielson said. “With the size of our police department in monitoring that, it’s a safety issue for me.”

McMorran shared some of those same concerns but pointed more to changes that the city and school district can make to improve safety and less to the road infrastructure factor.

Councilor Diane Crocker had a similar take.

“I do think that letting students out on 19th Street is dangerous regardless of what we do here,” Crocker said. “I think that’s a problem that the school district needs to deal with … I’m not sure this is going to make any difference.”

Plan calls for multifamily units

The rezoned land is owned by 800 Property LLC, which lists Paul Spies as its registered agent. MSS Inc.’s Peter Seaders, a consultant for the property owner, was on hand for the hearing.

Seaders, in response to a councilor’s question on the anticipated residential demographic, said the site “can support potentially 20 multifamily units and so that would be potentially four five-unit buildings on each of those four lots … and those likely would be in the three- to four-bedroom range.”

As for the types of residents, student housing appears to be a logical assumption but it could also fill the need of individuals and families looking to move to Philomath.

“We obviously are not going to be able to control who rents those but it certainly provides an opportunity for people to move into the area and are not ready or able to purchase a single-family unit immediately,” Seaders said.

Despite that level of detail related to the housing, the public hearing at hand was only about rezoning. But with the high-density designation, up to 24 units per acre can be constructed — as opposed to 12 units per acre at medium density, City Manager Chris Workman said.

Jones and Causey both spoke as proponents in favor of additional housing that’s needed in the community. Jones said he feels the size of the development will have an inconsistent impact on traffic and water while filling a significant need for additional housing in town.

“From my perspective, the difference between having 12 units on this phase versus 24 units is pretty marginal,” Causey said, later adding, “I think it’s very hard to make a case against this development … I can’t make a credible argument to say that there’s too much traffic, the road won’t support it, and there’s not enough water. We’ve obviously demonstrated that there is enough water and the road will support it.”

Causey also believes that the ongoing effort between the city and school district related to the traffic circulation study will address issues that were raised.

The motion to deny the application failed on a 5-1 vote (Andrade nay, Matt Lehman absent). Jones then made a new motion to approve and it passed by the same margin (Andrade nay, Lehman absent).

The vote requires that city staff prepare an amending ordinance for the council to consider at its next regular meeting.

Hearing testimony from the public

Three people spoke in opposition to the rezoning and although traffic was a clear concern, other issues were brought up.

Peggy Yoder, a former planning commissioner, pushed for the council to deny the application based on what she said is a failure to meet requirements as outlined in the city’s comprehensive plan. In short, she said citizens “should have a voice in R3 (high density) locations. The public hearings regarding 19th and Chapel do not satisfy the recommended public discussion.”

Yoder also mentioned other reasons that the application should be denied and went into detail about ambiguities in the comp plan that allows “any landowner to get approval for a zoning change as long as they meet the applicable criteria.”

Said Yoder, “We hear a lot about the need for more housing but this piece of property currently allows for 12 housing units without a zone change to R3.” She urged that the property owner either build accordingly or wait for a pending comp plan update to be completed.

Another resident, Janet Linebarger, in her arguments against rezoning referred to traffic, including that October joint work session involving the City Council and School Board.

“Rezoning the property in question, whose cars will only be able to enter and exit on 19th Street, will dramatically increase the number of cars using 19th during times that have already been determined to be highly congested and unsafe,” Linebarger said.

Linebarger also mentioned transparency and comp plan issues.

A third resident who spoke in opposition was Denise Frankino, who said most folks in the area that she visited were not aware of the rezoning application. She challenged the city’s methods for informing the public.

“City Council talks about citizen involvement and I learned by going door-to-door that many people who live close to this zoning area are not aware,” Frankino said. “They have not been given the opportunity to provide input on something that would affect their quality of life and their property value.”

Frankino said a petition against the zoning change had 50 signatures with 18 gathered since the December meeting.

No citizens spoke in favor of rezoning or as a neutral party.

With each of the three public comments mentioning transparency, councilors were interested to know how the city had been getting the word out.

City Recorder Ruth Post said notice of the public hearings and meetings are posted in six public places (City Hall, library, police station, post office, public works and school administration office), on the city’s website, in the city’s monthly newsletter and in the city’s weekly email sent to subscribers, in addition to fulfilling the legal requirement to publish the notice in a printed newspaper.

Sixteen property owners within a 250-foot radius of the property also received notices, Workman said, and as far as signage, it was not required by city code to be posted for this project’s level of zone change (it is required for larger projects). Post said notices were also emailed out to those on an “interested parties” list.

Incidentally, Workman said the Planning Commission plans to talk about the city’s notification methods for the various land-use application types at its Feb. 21 meeting.

In other news out of the Feb. 13 meeting:

• The council approved a consent agenda that included minutes of past meetings and a Budget Committee calendar.

• The council appointed Josiah Jessen to fill a vacant seat on the Planning Commission and filled two of the three vacancies on the Inclusivity Committee with Oriana Mulatero and Lauri Lehman. There were no applicants for a vacant Budget Committee seat.

• The council approved the establishment of a liaison to Philomath Fire & Rescue and appointed McMorran to serve in that role.

• The council approved the formation of an ad-hoc committee to assist with matters related to the selection of the water treatment plant’s equipment package.

• The council approved a councilor’s request to move certain contributors to meetings up on the agenda to avoid having them wait for hours to give what is typically a short presentation.

• The council approved a councilor’s request to rescind the Dec. 12 approval of Nov. 14 meeting minutes to make a revision.

• The council approved a resolution related to current budget adjustments.

• The council approved a resolution that implements a corrective action plan related to an audit management letter to the city.

• With the meeting running long, the council tabled a planned review of a draft for the 2023-27 Strategic Plan.

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.