Incremental development and its potential impacts in areas such as traffic and water got into the discussion on Monday at the Philomath City Council meeting. (Photo by kozmoat98/Getty Images via Canva)

A developer’s request to rezone property on the corner of Chapel Drive and South 19th Street to be able to build four five-plexes came out of Monday night’s Philomath City Council meeting with no decision.

A public hearing on the Corvallis-based developer’s rezoning application raised concerns about traffic and water impacts and sparked opposition through the testimony of two individuals and submission of a petition with 32 signatures.

Based on the application, the developer plans to build four two-story five-plexes with three- and four-bedroom apartments on 1.09 acres.

But perhaps the most interesting conversation of the evening came toward the end of the discussion when City Councilor Matt Lehman expressed frustration with the overlying process. Small developments, such as the one they had just discussed, doesn’t trigger city requirements for impact studies — traffic being the one mentioned most often.

In other words, incremental development can add up to unintended consequences that affect quality of living for residents.

“At some point, we’re going to die a death of a thousand cuts … because this development doesn’t trigger a traffic study and the next one’s not going to and the next one’s not going to … It’s difficult to get to Safeway right now depending on what time of day you go and it’s going to get worse,” Lehman said. “As I’ve probably said more times than I should, our state doesn’t seem to be concerned about that in the slightest.”

Earlier in the meeting, City Councilor Catherine Biscoe had broached the subject by saying that the Millpond Crossing housing development — which at full build-out would border the property at Chapel and 19th — should be factored in. Only when considering aggregate numbers can conclusions be reached about real-world impacts on traffic patterns, she suggested.

Mayor Chas Jones presents outgoing City Councilor Catherine Biscoe with a certificate of appreciation for her service. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

“We’ve seen increasing pressures of additional housing in this region already and I’m wondering if anyone can speak to that,” Biscoe said.

Lehman directed his comments toward City Attorney Jim Brewer for a legal perspective. Brewer gave an example of incremental development that’s occurring in Grants Pass.

“It’s a series of partitions of three lots, three lots, three lots, with nothing ever triggering a road improvement sufficient to carry the burden — if you took (into account) all of that property,” he said. “And there’s not really an elegant way to take care of that.”

Lehman took it one step further to ask if Philomath could “draw a line in the sand as a City Council and say, ‘unless the state increases the capacity of the transportation system for Philomath, we’re not going to allow any more development?’”

Mayor Chas Jones presents outgoing City Councilor David Low with a certificate of appreciation for his service. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Brewer said there is a state law that allows a moratorium on development but it requires a plan for how the city will address the deficiency.

“Once you’ve identified, yeah, I’ve got a facility that’s not sufficient to meet the development plan, you can then have a pause on development,” Brewer said. “By the way, there’s a consequence for applications that are filed under standards that are already in place through the moratorium period. So it really doesn’t accomplish what you might think it would. But it does give a pause and allows people to plan around those deficiencies.”

Responded Lehman, “So basically what you’re saying is there’s not a way we can keep people from continuing to build houses here but not increase the ability for people to get out of here to go to the doctor, to get groceries, to see a movie, to go to a concert or just leave town.”

Said Brewer, “I think that is a challenge.”

City Councilor Ruth Causey referred to two Planning Commission members who were in opposition to the rezoning application in question during that group’s most recent meeting.

“The stated opposition of one commissioner was that they felt it should be driven by the city’s decisions with respect to zoning rather than driven by the application from a developer,” said Causey, who serves as a liaison between the council and commission.

Referring to Lehman’s “death of a thousand cuts” comment, Causey said, “If we as a city decide where R3 zones are going to be and theoretically have some idea of how those will impact future traffic when they’re built on, it does give us more control when we have piecemeal developers come in and want to build R3 housing.”

Public hearing period remains open

As for the public hearing on the rezoning application, the 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, spoke during the hearing’s public comments period and answered the council’s follow-up questions.

Limited to three minutes of testimony, Seaders rushed through the various points he wanted to make and ended with the comment, “We concur with the staff report and the Planning Commission in finding that this application does meet with all of the relevant decision criteria and ask you to approve this application.”

Two people spoke in opposition to the rezoning with comments on the development’s possible impact on things like water, traffic, neighbors and public services. A person identified as a neutral party also expressed concerns over the city’s water supply when considering restrictions on water rights and the number of developments that have been approved in recent years.

The property in question features four parcels, which are located at 800 through 834 South 19th Street, and are currently vacant. The rezoning would amend the city’s comprehensive plan map from medium-density residential to high-density residential.

City Planner Patrick Depa provided background information on the property, explained zoning differences and went through findings of fact in various areas as they relate to city policies.

The dominant theme of the discussion involved traffic impacts. In October, the City Council and School Board in a joint work session identified areas of concern related to local traffic. A location that prompted a lot of discussion is not far from the proposed development — Clemens Primary School student dropoff and pickup area on South 19th.

“Do we want to even more increase that density and traffic flow on a street we’re already concerned with without having made the necessary changes to mitigate that problem?” City Councilor Teresa Nielson wondered.

Several councilors questioned the applicant’s trip generation numbers as not making a lot of sense, specifically with inconsistencies in the report when it comes to trips per unit vs. trips per room. Seaders, the MSS representative, said he could not speak definitively to the concern but indicated he would follow up.

The city’s staff report that listed findings of fact concluded, “There is no significant impact to the transportation system” and that the “change in traffic is not deemed significant.”

City Manager Chris Workman pointed out that the limited size of the development would not trigger a requirement for a traffic needs analysis per development code.

“I can also assure … we’re not going to require a traffic impact analysis for any development that goes on this site because it’s so small. It’s going to be pretty irrelevant,” Workman said — this part of the discussion occurring before Lehman’s comments on incremental development.

Biscoe reiterated that she would want to see all estimated traffic impacts when taking into account the Millpond Crossing development, which not only includes single-family housing but was revised to allow for future townhomes.

Nielson summed up, “I think there are a lot of factors that we as a council need to think about and take into consideration.”

Along those same lines, water impacts is another subject area.

Workman said the staff report that went through the city planner and public works “indicates that we have sufficient water for this development. It doesn’t show the data … again, with a development of this size, that level of detail wasn’t taken into account.”

Based on the current findings in the city’s staff report, the zone change application meets the criteria for approval, the city manager pointed out. However, if the council challenges the findings and has conclusions that are not acceptable, then action could be taken to mitigate those concerns or the application could ultimately be denied.

More than an hour into the discussion, the council decided to continue the public hearing at a future meeting — the date to be determined. It was decided to keep the record open until Jan. 9.

City manager strikes deal on property cleanup

In other news out of the meeting, the council unanimously approved of the city leasing property at 14th and Main to CORPAC as a construction staging site associated with the streetscapes project. The contractor previously had verbal permission to have its equipment on the city-owned lot but wanted a longer-term lease to be in place for the duration of the project.

In lieu of monthly lease payments, CORPAC has agreed to pay for the demolition of an old steel car wash structure, removal and disposal of underground storage tanks and contaminated soil.

Workman said the value of the work CORPAC agreed to adds up to an estimated $50,000 to $70,000.

The city would still be responsible for costs associated with testing and permitting required through the Department of Environmental Quality. The property was the longtime site of a service station. Workman said the city is working with Business Oregon and DEQ on grant funding to cover those expenses.

CORPAC is required to finish the work before the lease expires on Aug. 31, 2024.

During the meeting’s public comments period, Planning Commissioner Peggy Yoder asked the council to reconsider its planned destruction of the old car wash structure on the property. She provided a quick history and pointed to its “sawtooth” roof design, which she said ties into the town’s timber town theme.

The council hosted a public hearing on the proposed sale of the structure in June 2021 and ultimately passed a resolution on a 4-3 vote to declare it as surplus. Workman said he received one bid eight months ago for $100 but had not heard from that person since and had seen no further interest.

City Councilor Jessica Andrade said the city should consider keeping it in place.

“It has a history here … if the aesthetic is timber town, shouldn’t we incorporate some of that authenticity,” Andrade said. “I don’t see how it would harm anything. So many people have stated that they want some sort of gathering place at this lot — why not just leave it there?”

Biscoe suggested that it could be a project to be undertaken by the city’s Public Art Committee.

Others on the council were not in favor, however.

“I’ll be very frank … I think it’s ugly and I wish it weren’t there and I don’t think it suggests timber town at all,” Causey said. “Personally, I think no matter what you do with it, it’s still going to look like a car wash but the people on the art committee are much more creative than I am and they may have some viable ideas.”

Lehman didn’t mince words.

“I say burn it, get rid of it. I’m not in favor of keeping it,” he said. “It’s been an eyesore since I’ve lived here for 20 years. It hasn’t been operational as far as I know. In that whole time, we tried to get rid of it a couple of times and there were no takers. It’s going to cost us money to move it; it’s going to cost us money to maintain it; and if I could push it over, I would.”

Workman added his perspective as well and feels the structure has no value.

“I don’t see what the attraction is there … I’d be happy to see it go as well,” he said. “It got included in this agreement because it’s a no-cost way for us to get rid of it and have it hauled off site and not have to mess with it in the future.”

Mayor Chas Jones said he was also in favor of the city disposing of the structure.

Andrade’s motion to remove language from the lease that would keep the car wash structure in place failed on a 5-2 vote. The council then voted unanimously to approve the lease agreement.

In other news out of the Dec. 12 meeting:

• Jones presented outgoing councilors Biscoe and David Low with certificates of appreciation for their service on the City Council. Workman later in the meeting during the city manager’s report also thanked them both. 

• During the public comments portion of the meeting, Amanda Fritz, former Portland city councilor who serves on the League of Oregon Cities’ Equity and Inclusion Committee; Taneea Browning, League of Oregon Cities Executive Committee president; Kristy Kottkey, Forest Grove city councilor; and Pete Truax, Forest Grove mayor; all lauded the efforts and impacts of Biscoe on the statewide stage. Biscoe served as the president of the LOC’s Women’s Caucus.

• Jones opened the meeting with a moment of silence in memory of the late Jeff Lamb.

• The council met in executive session for about 1 hour, 45 minutes for discussions related to consultation with legal counsel, performance evaluations and real property transactions.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

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.