The City of Hood River has decided to skirt around the edges of a disputed waterfront park in its review of a mixed-use zoning plan.
On Monday, the elected body agreed to proceed with public hearings on a rezone of property south of Portway Avenue. However, they plan to temporarily leave the light industrial zoning in place on the large section of land north of that roadway. That decision was based on a pending legal challenge over voter approval to preserve the property for a public park. The passage of Measure 14-16 has raised legal questions that the Port of Hood River, as the landowner, wants the court and state to address. The answer to both constitutional and procedural issues is expected to take about one year, or possibly longer if challenged.
“We don’t want to stall the process so we’re going to work on the area that we can until there is a resolution of these legal questions,” said Mayor Paul Cummings.
The city will open the first public hearing on the draft zoning ordinance at 6 p.m. on Monday in the municipal courtroom at 211 Second Street. However, to accommodate the new direction, that hearing will be continued until the same time on Dec. 22 and no public testimony will be taken.
Citizens for Responsible Waterfront Development spokesperson Brian Carlstrom said the group wants the city to resolve the current controversy by granting the voters what they have asked for. He said downzoning the strip along the Columbia seemed like a “fair compromise” since the port would gain valuation by the change of zoning on other parcels.
“The voters and the city planning commission support the idea of preserving this land. Now, if the port would just call off their legal guns we could all get on with more festive activities,” Carlstrom said. “The will of the voters is clear: preserve this small strip of land for park space for future generations. Procrastinating on honoring the voters’ decision is irresponsible.”
However, the port contends that it has a responsibility to protect the financial interests of all of its constituents. Although the measure was approved in the general election by city voters, the port district extends from Parkdale to Wyeth and citizens in outlying areas were not given the opportunity to mark their ballots.
In addition, the port wants a legal opinion on the constitutionality of the new policy which take away use of the property without monetary compensation. These officials also believe that the measure violates the Oregon Constitution by dealing with two issues instead of the single allowable proposal. Voters were asked not only to approve the park but a condition that allowed existing buildings to remain only as long as their current operation continued.
In addition to seeking a court ruling, the port is asking the state Land Use Board of Appeals to determine whether a popular vote can replace the existing state guidelines for rezones that are based on the findings and facts of law.
CRWD brought the measure solely before the 2,970 registered voters within the city limits because the municipality has jurisdiction for zoning of the area. The turnout rate for voters was about 54 percent and the new policy for a park passed by a 67 percent margin, with 1,081 citizens in favor and 522 opposed. The area in question includes all port property along the Columbia River from, and including, 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 River to the centerline of Portway.
“It doesn’t seem right for the port, a public entity, to be spending taxpayers’ hard-earned money on lawyer’s fees when it is clear what the voters have asked for. I surely don’t want my taxes going to legal fees fighting 14-16,” Carlstrom said.
The Results Through Representative Government, a political action committee opposed to the initiative, warned citizens throughout the summer and fall months that passage of the park proposal would force a court action. The group claimed the port would have no choice but to make that move since three-quarters of the citizens within its borders were “alienated” from casting a vote.
“There are a bevy of legal issues with regard to this initiative and as far as RTRG is concerned, the port is pursuing the most responsible avenue possible on behalf of all of its constituents by seeking a court decision to address those issues,” said Richard Lee, the group’s co-founder.
“The question must be answered, ‘How do we choose to make decisions with regard to the zoning of public property?’ If it’s okay to make those decisions through citizen initiative processes then we need to discard our local representative system of government. If it’s not okay, then future attempts at sidestepping the legally recognized system of government should be snuffed out and not allowed to be placed on a ballot to begin with,” he said.