Sep 19, 2005

Troutdale Zoning Laws: just a loophole for developers?

At the September 13 Troutdale City Council meeting, we voted to approve Centex Homes' annexation application of approximately 14 acres into the city. Approximately 100 Troutdale residents came to the meeting to voice their concerns against annexation of the property.

Most of the residents were against the annexation because Centex Homes' Annexation Application stated its plans for future development were between 32 and 40 lots of detached, single family homes. The lot sizes would range between 7,000 and 12,000 square feet.

This area, known as the Baker property, is located south of Sweetbriar Road and east of Troutdale Road. It is inside the Urban Growth Boundary, is designated Low Density Residential and is zoned R-10 (detached single family homes with a minimum lot size of 10,000 square feet).

Because there are wetlands running through the middle of the site, the city's VECO (Vegetarian Corridor and Slope District) overlay applies. This means that the wetlands are protected from development. Because the city requires these wetlands to be set aside by the developer, Troutdale's city code allows that some of the lots in this area zoned as R-10 can be as small as 7,000 square feet. This compensation is known as a "density transfer"- an equal transfer of allowable dwelling units from one portion of a site to another.

If the city did not allow this, the developer could allege a "taking" had occurred. Basically, a taking occurs when a government action violates the 5th Amendment property rights of a landowner by taking a piece of property, such as the wetlands on the Baker property, without fair compensation.

I think there was a misunderstanding by the folks who showed up at the meeting regarding what the City Council was voting on. I think they had the idea that the City Council could vote down Centex's development plan for small lot sizes at the hearing for annexation of the property. It's understandable. Troutdale's Comprehensive Plan is large, complex, and not for the faint of heart!

But the City Council was deciding only one question regarding the annexation application: Did the application comply with applicable city laws pertaining to annexation and to Troutdale's Comprehensive Land Use Plan? That was it. We could not consider any other criteria such as future plans for development.

If these criteria were met, the City Council had to approve the annexation. If we had denied this annexation, Centex could have appealed the decision to LUBA. Because Centex met all the required annexation criteria, Troutdale's city attorney told me that Centex would have a good chance of winning on appeal. My feeling was, why say NO when LUBA would say yes, with thousands of Troutdale tax dollars wasted in attorney fees?

There was no reason to deny Centex's rights under the law. One Troutdale resident said that Centex was using a "loophole" to build smaller lot sizes. The "loophole" he was speaking of was a well established Troutdale law, available for use by everyone. That's what is so great about the rule of law- it applies equally to everyone. The City Council does not get to pick and choose who our annexation law applies to, depending on the circumstances.

However, although I'm only speaking for myself here and not the rest of the City Council, I think we were all concerned that allowing lot sizes of less than 10,000 square feet might not conform to the spirit of Troutdale's land use goals and policies. There is supposed to be a gradual transition from farmland to an urban setting, and that's the reason this property was zoned as R-10. You don't' want to go straight from undeveloped farmland to high density apartments.

Anyway, I'm going to do my best to work with my fellow City Councilors and city staff to see if there is a way to maintain the 10,000 SF lot size to keep with the intent of our land use goals (lot sizes are a separate issue from annexation!) I hate postage stamp sized lots just as much as anyone else.

The good news out of this annexation is that the wetlands on the property will not be disturbed. Centex Homes indicated at the meeting they would entertain the possibility of deeding the wetlands to Troutdale.

Finally, it should be pointed out that the land the developer can't use that could be considered a taking is not the wetland itself, but the land buffer requirements around the wetland that was forced on Troutdale by METRO!

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