County Commissioners adopt `footprint' law

In a unanimous decision Jan. 22, the Hood River County Board of Commissioners voted to adopt a "footprint" ordinance limiting the size of commercial buildings in the county's Urban Growth Area (UGA) to 50,000 square feet.

After more than two hours of public testimony, the board adopted the city's footprint ordinance while recommending that five issues pertaining to the ordinance be addressed by the city. Those are:

Whether the ordinance should be revised to specifically address retail outlets only, since including all commercial structures could preclude other large scale businesses such as hotels and tech centers.

Further defining "building" since the uniform building code currently defines one long structure with an internal fire wall as two separate buildings.

Addressing whether there should be an allowance for variances in the building size limitation so that exceptions could be made.

Addressing a potential "loophole" in the ordinance as it applies to buildings already in existence. In the city's ordinance, adopted in October, existing buildings of any size would be allowed to expand by 10 percent, but only up to the 50,000 square foot limit for those currently less than that size. Buildings currently greater than 50,000 square feet would be allowed the full 10 percent expansion.

Consideration of an idea floated by Mayor Paul Cummings referred to as an "overlay" plan, which could create different size restrictions for different parts of the city -- and, potentially, for the UGA.

The city and county staff will now meet jointly to address the five issues and come up with recommendations on them, according County Commission Chair John Arens. That process will not affect the implementation of the footprint ordinance in the UGA, which takes effect in 30 days.

Public testimony at Tuesday's meeting weighed heavily in favor of the county adopting the ordinance. City officials, including Cindy Walbridge, planning director, and Mayor Cummings gave background on how they arrived at the footprint ordinance and urged the county to pass it -- even if, as Cummings said, it still required some "tweaking."

Cummings said the city originally came up with the 50,000 square foot number "arbitrarily," but as the staff began researching the issue early last year, it "turned out it was an appropriate figure."

Jurgen Hess, chair of the City of Hood River Planning Commission, expanded on Cummings' comments.

"We looked at various buildings" around the area, "varying from 35,000 to 72,000 square feet," he said. "We felt `50' was an appropriate number given scale, livability and compatibility issues." He said the city planners felt that "not having this footprint ordinance would lead to a decrease in smaller businesses and a decrease in diversity."

Several people urged the county to follow protocol established under the Urban Growth Area Management Agreement, which calls for the county to adopt land-use ordinances for the UGA that are similar to the city's -- and that any revisions to the ordinance be made by the city and resubmitted to the county.

"What ends up as the county ordinance should mirror the city ordinance," said Bill Lyons, chair of the Hood River County Planning Commission, in a statement. Lyons was unable to attend Tuesday's meeting but sent a statement from the Planning Commission recommending adoption of the ordinance. "If anyone is going to tinker with the language of the city ordinance, it should be the city," he said.

Themes echoed over and over as proponents for the ordinance spoke were the appropriate scale of future development for Hood River's size, encouraging economic development and preserving the city's character.

Stu Watson, representing the grassroots Citizens for Responsible Growth (CRG), read from a list of other cities that have adopted similar footprint ordinances. They ranged from Ashland, Ore., with a 45,000 square-foot ordinance, to San Francisco, which is considering adopting a 50,000 square foot code.

"We are not alone in considering something like this," he said.

Larry Visser, who owns the property at 175 Country Club Road where the proposed Super Wal-Mart would be located, urged the county to "reject the ordinance or send it back." (The application for the Super Wal-Mart was filed in December and the 185,000 square foot retail store would not be affected by this ordinance.)

"If this is showing vision for the city, I'll show you a nightmare," Visser said. "I bet if you took a poll, county citizens would be very opposed to this big box ordinance and the way it's been formed."

But those citizens were absent Tuesday night. Only three people spoke against the county adopting the ordinance.

Members of CRG, which formed last fall to support the footprint ordinance and oppose "big box" structures in the city and county, hailed the 5-0 vote by the county commissioners as "responsible" and "visionary."

"I'm pleased about the outcome, and what I'm really pleased about is the county and city coming together and starting to have a dialogue," said Judie Hanel, co-chair of CRG.

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