Park plan favored by commission

Almost three years of work on a waterfront plan could be scrapped by the Hood River City Planning Commission.

On Wednesday, the commission decided to override the mixed-use zoning proposal and preserve a large section of the property for a public park. In fact, Chairman Jurgen Hess and Commissioner Paul Randall suggested that Portway Avenue be moved to better accommodate recreational uses along the shoreline. Randall’s motion to dedicate Lots 6 and 7 — about 10 acres — as open space died on the floor. However, the group unanimously agreed to research the possibility of imposing a recreational/commercial zone on those and other properties.

“Some things are going to be a whole lot more valuable than industrial land,” Hess said.

The Commission was also in total agreement that building heights should be “stair-stepped” from between 16-28 feet at the shoreline to 45 feet at the southern border. In place of the suggested 75-foot setback from the bank of the Columbia River, they proposed distances that ranged from 150-375 feet.

“I’m really concerned about blocking the view from the central business district and I’m also concerned about reducing the value of property with a blocked view,” Hess said.

Hood River Port Director Dave Harlan said he is “struggling” to understand the reasoning behind the Oct. 22 deliberations. He believes the Commission has clearly revealed its agenda to support a ballot initiative (Measure 14-16) with roughly the same proposal. The Citizens for Responsible Waterfront Development are asking the 2,900 registered voters within the city limits to approve a park from the riverside jetty known as the Hook to the site referred to as the Boat Basin and from the water’s edge of the Columbia to the centerline of Portway.

“Clearly they are aware that port board and city council members have been talking about this for three years. Clearly they are aware the same issues that they are talking about led to a breakdown on previous waterfront planning efforts. Even with that in mind they have decided to pursue this course,” said Harlan.

He said even the Commission’s defense that it had received an overwhelming amount of testimony in favor of the park was questionable. Earlier this month, members of Results Through Representative Government, a citizen group in favor of mixed-use zoning, refused to testify after the first of two public hearings because they felt the review of the Columbia River Mixed-Use Zone was “biased and unfair.”

“In most public forums officials understand that when the same exact comments are being aired over and over again there is usually a campaign being orchestrated and they work to find the balance,” Harlan said.

He said the Commission doesn’t seem to have a concern for the “regulatory takings” issue that could be raised if they take away use of the property. He said the waterfront is now zoned primarily for industrial use that allows buildings within 25 feet of the shoreline.

“When they mirrored the comments of folks who said you could just mitigate away the legal ramifications my eyebrows went up,” Harlan said.

In addition, he said the pricetag for park construction did not appear to factor into the Commission’s discussion. For example, Harlan said the port has spent more than $1 million to develop the Event Site and this year will subsidize the maintenance and operation costs by more than $42,000.

He said even more disconcerting was having the Commission stray into areas of discussion that were not applicable to the zoning review. For example, he said the group expressed concerns about the possible competition that future development could create for downtown businesses.

“Where is that addressed in the ordinance?” he asked.

On behalf of the port, Harlan is refuting the lack of science behind the Commission’s recommendation to expand the buffer zone around the Hood River Distillers to 400 feet — which would include a section of Interstate 84. Harlan said Ron Dodge, the chief executive for the business, requested that footage in place of the standard 50 feet recommended by the fire marshal. Dodge asked for the additional space because the property houses storage tanks and rail cards containing undiluted alcohol that is highly flammable. He was concerned about the possibility of an explosion if foot and vehicle traffic increased in the area.

“There has been no study done on this issue, including how many vehicles will pass through that buffer every day on the freeway. The Commission made up its mind based solely on the fact that Mr. Dodge had paced off a distance that he thought would work,” said Harlan.

According to Harlan, the Commission is even attempting to have the last word on the master plan that will be developed once the zoning is decided. He said the “goodwill” offer of William Smith, the port’s chosen developer, to present that document to the appointed body now appears to have become a condition of zoning approval.

“Mixed-use development is more difficult than other types of development, both in terms of funding and implementation. Adding process delays can make success even harder to obtain,” said Harlan.

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