After two years of legal challenges, it appears the controversy between Naito Development and Friends of the Hood River Waterfront is finally coming to an end.
Even more surprising, it appears the matter has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved.
Hood River Mayor Arthur Babitz announced during Monday night’s regular meeting of the Hood River City Council that parties were “very close to a comprehensive agreement which will put to an end the legal disputes over development of the south end of the Nichols Basin.”
The deal allows the Naitos to build their proposed Nichols Landing development located at the south end of the Nichols Boat Basin without further appeal from Friends of the Hood River Waterfront. The development includes a four-story, 88-room Hampton Inn and Suites hotel as well as a 20,000-square-foot commercial building.
The agreement also requires the Naitos to move the commercial building back from the riparian area of the Nichols Boat Basin, which had been a point of contention for Friends. In their most recent appeal of the project, Friends argued the commercial building’s location within the riparian area created a flood hazard situation and could harm salmon populations in the basin that are protected under the Endangered Species Act.
Additionally, Babitz reported that as part of the agreement, the riparian section of the Naito parcel, which is approximately 3 acres, will be brought into city ownership and turned into “a park for low-impact recreation and conservation values.” He told the council and the audience that this move “will forever protect and enhance habitat for fish and birds while providing a significant recreation site and attractive green space for us all to enjoy.” He added the park would provide an area for “the final link in our waterfront path, and bring into public ownership the only privately owned waterfront parcel west of the Hood River Bridge.”
The agreement was hailed as a “win-win-win solution” by Babitz, who recused himself from the project’s land use proceedings nearly two years ago in an attempt to work directly with Friends and Naito Development to resolve the dispute.
“In the end, both sides recognized the benefit of resolving this dispute in a way that is so clearly beneficial to the entire community,” he said during the meeting. “We will all benefit from this.”
Both developer Bob Naito and Friends attorney Brent Foster voiced their appreciation of Babitz for helping hammer out the latest iteration of the deal over the past six months. Naito told Babitz during the meeting that he had “respect” for him and advocated he run for mayor of Portland someday.
“Mr. Mayor, I would reiterate the invitation I have extended to you, I think ever since we met, that if you ever move to Portland, you should run for mayor, and I will be the chief fundraiser for your campaign,” Naito said to Babitz Monday night.
Babitz, who is not running for re-election, grimly shook his head and said jokingly, “This is how much you hate me.”
Foster also thanked the mayor and the Naitos for working out the deal, which he said he believed would be viewed positively many decades into the future as a way to protect water quality and habitat.
“We haven’t always agreed and seen eye-to-eye, but I really appreciate both the mayor and the Naitos for, frankly, working with us and coming up with a solution I think is good,” he said.
Some of the terms of the deal are still being ironed out via a handful of attorneys representing the different groups that are party to the issue, but Babitz said the park property will be purchased via the city’s Urban Renewal Agency using taxes generated by the development. He explained that per the agreement, the URA won’t pay anything for the property until the development starts generating taxes, “then it will pay only the additional taxes collected due to new construction.”
Babitz further explained this arrangement was “only possible because this land was already part of the waterfront urban renewal district and this acquisition fits within the projects described in the plan which was written and approved about five years ago.”
The sale is still under negotiation and Babitz wouldn’t comment on the price of the park property other than to say he believed “it is a very reasonable price for waterfront property including a gently sloping beach.” He said he expected the agreement documents that the URA and the city are party to would be made public within the next couple weeks.
Babitz said in “very rough numbers,” he expected the hotel will likely “pay close to $100,000 in property taxes and collect more than $200,000 a year in room taxes,” as well as create 55 direct and indirect full-time jobs, not including construction jobs.
“It is not often acquiring a park generates taxes which more than pay for itself, but that is the case here,” he told the council and the audience during the meeting. “The property taxes which will pay for the acquisition are ones which would not have been collected if the hotel was further delayed or not constructed at all. Additionally, the hotel will be generating significant room taxes for the city’s general fund and the Visitor Council coffers.”
The park is expected to have minimal development, but at the very least will include the extension of the waterfront trail from the port property to the northwest.
“The primary intent is to create a green space with meaningful habitat value, but to the extent that recreation does not conflict with that goal, it will be allowed,” Babitz explained. “We won’t be installing picnic shelters or playground toys, but people will be able to picnic under the shade of the trees or play on the beach or in the woods.”
He added that one of the goals of this plan is to “restore tree cover and vegetation to this small area of beach, which will look very much like the Hood River delta 100 years ago,” which Babitz said had thickets of willow and cottonwood trees.
Once the agreement is finalized — barring any further issues — development on the Nichols Landing project will move quickly. Naito announced to the council he expected the hotel would be open by “September or October of next year” and that construction of the commercial building would start in “spring of next year” with an anticipated opening sometime between “the spring to middle of 2016.”