Wal-Mart plan remains in limbo

Commission orders re-design in dispute over floodplain threat

The verdict on the new Wal-Mart super center is a definite — maybe.

On Wednesday the Hood River County Planning Commission voted 5-2 in favor of the plan — if it can be revised so the development of 16 acres will not cause any loss of floodplain storage. However, the commission did not delineate exactly how much protection was needed around Phelps Creek, which flows through the property at the junction of Frankton and Country Club roads. Conflicting hydrology reports have been given about the potential for downstream flooding if 53,134 cubic yards of fill material raised the elevation of the site.

Commissioner Stan Benson pointed out that only Wal-Mart had performed a complete technical study of the topography. At an earlier hearing engineer David Gorman, hired by the applicant, said that he had used modeling that was approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He calculated that the retailer’s property comprised less than .37 of the 4,400-acre floodplain. Therefore, he determined that the development would have no real effect on surrounding water levels. In addition, Gorman asserted that enlarging the culverts under nearby roadways would actually stop the creek from overflowing during storms.

“Does it constitute a floodplain when you dam water and hold it back artificially?” asked Benson, who voted in favor of the application.

However, Commissioner Carl Perron, who voted against the proposed plan, said the county should heed the recommendation from its own consultant hydrologist, Ken Vigil, and not approve the application until Wal-Mart could prove that it would not cause flooding downstream.

To add another element of doubt, the issue of legal liability was addressed. The county had previously been informed that it could face a lawsuit if it was aware of a potential problem and then approved the development anyway. That threat was raised by Roger Sutherland, an engineer hired by the opposing Citizens for Responsible Growth. Sutherland had argued that the engineering work done by Gorman was erroneous because of miscalculations in the high water surface elevations during flooding. He said the county’s criteria required that there be “no adverse impact” from the development and that meant no fill material should be allowed.

A resolution to the issue was not reached by the commission prior to its vote, a fact that Kate Huseby, CRG co-chair, found “confusing.”

“Apparently, from my observation of the hearing, the commission and the planning department felt flooding is an issue but we still don’t have a clue about what the fix is,” she said.

Huseby, who lives near the proposed building site, was granted “standing” at the Nov. 12 meeting, which gives her the right to appeal the decision on behalf of CRG. Also granted that right were Stu and Kathy Watson, CRG members who also reside in that area. However, Huseby said CRG is uncertain about whether it will bring the matter before the Board of County Commissioners. A 15-day window of opportunity for that action will open up after the planning commission formally signs the order for its decision on Dec. 10 unless a special meeting can be arranged and advertised before that date.

“We do not know at this point, there are a lot of things to consider,” she said.

Scott Franklin of PacLand, a Clackamas developer which submitted the application on behalf of Wal-Mart, echoed the same uncertainty about filing an appeal on the attached conditions. He observed the proceedings but declined to comment on whether the retail giant would reverse its previous denial to amend the application for a 186,000 square foot store and 12-acre parking lot. In October, Greg Hathaway, the attorney for the applicant, said that Wal-Mart officials believed all of the site plan criteria had been met in a “legally defensible” manner.

“It’s something we’re looking at, we’re going to evaluate all of our options and see if this decision is something we can live with,” Franklin said.

Huseby is also concerned about a question raised by Commissioner Richard Sassara over the continued redrafting of plans that she believes was also never given a final answer. Since Wal-Mart submitted its preliminary application in December of 2000, the architects and engineers have been directed by Eric Walker, senior planner, to make numerous changes in order to meet site plan criteria. The right to propose a larger store was “grandfathered” by being filed before the county followed the City of Hood River’s lead and took action to limit the size of a single commercial structure to 50,000 square feet.

“My concern is, at what point does the development plan evolve into something different than what is in front of us now?” asked Sassara, who voted against the application.

To cover that possibility, the commission decided not only to have Mike Benedict, planning director, sign off on any new changes but to take a second look themselves. Commissioner Paul Cummings, who granted approval to the application, reiterated that the site for the proposed store was already zoned for that use. Therefore, he said the review process had to be much more flexible than a proposal to change zoning — which puts the burden of proof on the applicant to show why the criteria should change on their behalf.

“It’s not our job to design the project, it’s simply to evaluate the application in front of us,” argued Perron.

He and Sassara stood firm in their belief that the “bulk” of the building prevented it from being compatible with neighboring development. The remaining five officials concurred that architectural changes to break up the facade of the structure with gables and landscaping brought it into visual harmony with the surrounding area. The City of Hood River has objected to the county’s interpretation of the standard, contending that the immensity of the proposed store prevents it from blending into its environment.

The project was approved with the outstanding conditions after about 90 minutes of deliberation. Joining Benson and Cummings in favor of the applicant were Chair Bill Lyons and Commissioners William Uhlman and Patrick Moore.

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