In the six years that Damascus has been a city, it has mapped out a future with population growth and new neighborhoods.
The end of that process seemed in sight last month, when city councilors approved a state-required comprehensive plan. But locals have now referred that plan to the ballot.
The plan’s critics aren’t opposed to growth. In fact, as Rob Manning reports, they say the plan doesn’t allow property owners to develop enough.
Damascus covers more than 10,000 acres, and has about 10,000 people. Downtown is here, at the intersection of Highway 212 and Foster Road.
Damascus is expected to grow to 45.000 people in the decades to come. That’s because eight years ago the Metro regional government included it in a huge expansion of the Portland area’s urban growth boundary.
Damascus became a city two years later, in 2004, and city officials have been working ever since to figure out how Damascus should grow.
Diana Helm owns a home décor shop at Foster and 212. She expects the strip mall and fast food restaurants around her to change.
Diana Helm: “Buildings that have businesses possibly on the ground level, offices above, and even perhaps condos, apartments above, so we can get some people where the businesses are located.”
Helm is also the president of the Damascus city council. She says this isn’t the only place that would change under the city’s comprehensive plan. She points east to a quieter intersection.
Diana Helm: “It’s basically right now – it’s fields. There’s really nothing there. There’s some natural resources that we could incorporate into a village, civic-center type area.”
Many residents were worried eight years ago that the development allowed by bringing Damascus into the urban growth boundary would ruin their community. Some still feel that way. But those aren’t the folks pushing to overturn the comprehensive plan, that the city approved last month.
Ronald Briones helped collect signatures from dozens of his neighbors to put the plan on the ballot. He says folks felt the plan would not allow them to build enough.
Ron Briones: “And they just felt that all these restrictive little rules and regulations that were being put on them were just unlawful and just unwanted. So I had people calling me all the time saying ‘Hey, I want to sign because I don’t want them doing this to my property’.”
Supporters learned last week that they met the 200-signature threshold to qualify for the ballot.
Oregon has long limited growth to preserve farms, or wildlife habitat. And in some ways, the debate in Damascus is an old one: government-led plans for a community vs. private property rights.
But the debate in Damascus has a twist. Council president, Diana Helm, says the plan for Damascus aims to maintain natural features not just for wildlife or farming and forestry, but to use them to handle public needs. Helm says for instance, water could be managed using wetlands and streams, rather than by pouring money into building pumps and pipes. It’s called “ecosystem services.”
Diana Helm: “In order to do that, we did have to have this certain setbacks to preserve our stream corridors and preserve our waterways for drinking water, as well as water re-use – as irrigation. We’re going to keep ag land, out here, nursery land. We need that water.”
Josh Lattin helped gather signatures to force a vote on the comprehensive plan. He says restrictions around waterways – like this brook near Highway 212 – go too far.
Josh Lattin: “When they did their studies, they basically went out and found every little, not only every creek – this is running water throughout the year – but also any potential dry bed.”
The plan calls for setbacks of up to 200 feet, which is more than twice the usual standard in Oregon. Lattin says that means limiting development on close to one-fifth of the land in Damascus.
Josh Lattin: “So it’s actually one of the most restricted setbacks in the state of Oregon – it is the most restrictive.”
Council president Helm says the eco-system services could reduce costs. The plan’s critics say the costs have never been fully studied.
The call to reject the Damascus plan comes up on the May ballot.
The plan’s opponents won a victory last November, when Damascus voters elected a critic of the plan as mayor.
But city council president, Diana Helm, who supports the plan as-is, says she’s hearing something else...
Diana Helm: “Get on with it. We’ve talked about it long enough. The plan might not be perfect. In order for it to be perfect, everyone would have to be happy – and that’s just never going to be attainable.”
If the backers of the referendum win, they say the plan would only need to make small changes – like shrinking the stream buffers. Plan supporters say the setbacks should remain, to keep the town’s rural character and lower the costs of city services.
Even without the referendum, regional planners say Damascus has been growing more slowly than expected. In fact, Metro predicts the area will grow at only half the rate it predicted only a few years ago.
And due to the costs of roads and other infrastructure, they don’t expect much to develop before 2020, at the earliest.