One view, two perspectives

Plans for townhouses alter neighbors’ views; developer says he is within bounds

November 19, 2005

How high can you go?

That is the question facing Hood River homeowners as they jockey for the best view from steep hillsides.

Cindy Walbridge, planning director, said a new development proposal has underscored the need for further review of the issue. She will be studying the existing height standards for possible changes during the next few weeks (see City seeks ways to tighten review process).

Meanwhile, Chris Kelly has drawn fire from neighbors for his plan to build 11 townhouses along Sherman Avenue.

The owner of Storm Warning wants to erect a 160-foot long structure near the downtown business corridor.

That project includes six three-story units and five units that are two stories high.

Kelly said the ire of neighbors has been unexpected. He currently lives in one of the two homes on the site that will be destroyed for the new construction.

Kelly finds it ironic that his backyard will soon be eclipsed by the 45-foot-tall new home of one dissenter. And 45 feet is the same height that Kelly has planned for his three-story units.

The Kelly property is now bordered to the south by a new 12-foot retaining wall of large concrete blocks that have been painted green. Atop that wall sits the framework for Brian Conaway’s 5,046 square-foot single-family residence with 927 square feet of garage space and 2,362 square feet of decks.

To the east of that construction is another three-story home of about the same height. And toward the eastern edge of Kelly’s property, a 10-foot high retaining wall of unfinished concrete is topped with a chain link fence of about 4 feet.

But the biggest irony of all, said Kelly, is that neighbors oppose the placement of 6 to 8 feet of fill at the lowest point of his property. He said the dip in the ground was created by excavation so that another resident could install a sewer line.

“I have lived in downtown Hood River for 20 years. I feel like it’s in my own interests to have the town grow in a way that makes it vibrant and healthy,”’ said Kelly. “I would rather have a slight density than urban sprawl out into our orchard lands.”

Because of the craggy terrain, Kelly is entitled under the existing code to 10 extra feet of height on his new building. That footage is added to the regular standard of 35 feet. The extra footage is measured from the lowest point of the finished grade.

And how finished grade is determined has become the source of the controversy swirling around his building proposal.

Conaway contends the measurement should be taken from the street level.

His home appears to be a single-family residence from its front along Hazel Avenue. Conaway contends that it will not block the view of anyone who builds across the street.

Conversely, Kelly’s proposal will rise high enough to obstruct the view from the lower level view of Conaway’s residence, and that of Barry and Laura Scheer.

“It’s not that I’m against growth, but this is kind of scary,” Conaway said. “It could set a new precedent for height allowances.”

He contends that a trend could begin where landowners put excess fill on their property to raise the level of the finished grade. And that would allow them to extend the height well beyond the allowable 45 feet.

Although the city has no rules to protect view corridors, Conaway believes they should be guarded as much as possible. Otherwise, he said homes will continually be devalued by having their views removed by new construction.

The Scheers argue that all development on a hillside should also be staggered to fit the slope.

“It would be more aesthetically pleasing if the building (Kelly townhouses) stepped down with the grade,” said Barry Scheer.

Cindy Stephens, who owns two vacant city lots behind Kelly’s property, said she will now have to build a three-story structure just to retain her view. She said that higher prices are paid for property with a view – so the height measurement should be predictable.

“If you are going to buy a lot you need to look in front of you and know how high the person can build,” agreed Senay Burton, who will have her western view from Hazel Avenue blocked by the townhouses.

“Our issue is that if someone comes in to develop a lot, it’s carte blanche as to how high it’s going to be,” said Burton.

The concerned residents have pooled money to hire Portland attorney Rolf Anderson to represent their interests. On Wednesday, Anderson told the City Planning Commission that he did not believe the existing height standard was either “proper or legal.”

“Instead of saying it’s okay to block that many floors, you need to start over and ask the question: ‘How high is it okay to build?’” Anderson said.

On Nov. 16, Kelly gave the commission a first look at the plans he believes will enhance the area. For one thing, he said each of the townhouses has off-street parking along a roadway where it is not required. And, instead of taking maximum advantage of setbacks, he wants to construct the project on a smaller footprint to create more green space.

Bill Irving, his project manager, said some of the property will actually have up to 12 feet of earth excavated to level the ground.

“We are actually going to have to figure out what to do with the dirt that we’re going to be hauling away,” said Irving.

He said the architectural design for the structure blends it into the surrounding landscape. For example, the garage doors are outfitted with the same natural wood that will be used on the remainder of the exterior. And a large cedar tree on the eastern property line will be left intact. All 11 units will have a garage that is spacious enough for two cars plus storage.

The overall length of the building is broken up by having some units set back farther from the street that others.

Kelly’s property is currently zoned for commercial use that, with a conditional use permit, accommodates high-density housing. He believes the project is a good fit since it will be sited near residences – but look across the street at the county administration building, Hood River News, Riverside Community Church and the county courthouse.

On Wednesday, Irving addressed the planning commission on behalf of Kelly. He said every attempt was being made to accommodate the concerns of neighbors. But, at the end of the day, the project fit within the city’s comprehensive land-use plan and should be approved.

“We are not asking for any type of a variance here. We are working completely within the existing allowable guidelines,” he said.

Conaway, the Scheers and other dissenters believe the city should not allow a “big, bulky box” on the site.

The planning commission will meet again at 6 p.m. on Dec. 7 to further scrutinize the Kelly application.

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