While some say Damascus needs to stay a city to maintain local control of growth, others say it’s time to throw in the towel.
In a span of fewer than 10 years, residents of Damascus — a rural community south of Gresham — went from voting to create their own city to voting on whether to close shop at City Hall.
Growth projections that caused Metro to bring the area within its regional urban growth boundary proved too optimistic. Future development that Damascus residents wanted a say in never materialized. And a deadlocked six-member City Council can’t agree on a comprehensive plan to present to the voters for approval.
Two Damascus residents got fed up and gathered the required signatures to place a measure on the ballot allowing residents to decide whether to remain a city or go back to being governed by Clackamas County as an unincorporated area.
In order for Measure 3-433 to pass, more than half of the city’s registered voters not only have to approve it, but they also must actually cast a ballot in the Nov. 5 election, according to county elections officials.
Arguments for disincorporation
Disincorporation proponents say the city has little to show for city taxes residents now pay, blaming a long running lack of leadership that dates back to shortly after the city formed.
If voters approve disincorporation, residents’ combined city and county property tax rate of $5.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value would drop by nearly 46 percent to $2.98 per $1,000. That’s because although the Damascus property tax rate of $3.10 would disappear, Clackamas County charges higher property taxes for unincorporated areas than Damascus residents now pay as an incorporated city.
“It is a big task” to create a city, said George Samaan, the measure’s chief petitioner. “It really depended on the people elected to the council. But the personalities that were there did not listen to professional advice. And they thought they knew better than anybody else, including the citizens of Damascus.”
Samaan said people liked the idea of having “local control” over growth, but didn’t understand the state, county and other requirements that growth would need to meet.
“From what I understand, they continue to ignore the state and Metro requirements,” he added. All the while, millions of tax dollars have been spent “and for nothing,” unless you count controversy, divisiveness and the city’s new reputation as a dysfunctional municipality.
Voters defeated a measure last November that would have removed part of Damascus from the regional urban growth boundary, in large part because doing so would not lower property taxes and would make it harder for property owners to develop their land.
Disincorporation, however, would make it easier for people to develop their property through Clackamas County.
“It’s going to make it easier for everybody and it will save a ton of money,” Samaan said. “They could develop sooner than under a city that is so dysfunctional.”
Even if a comprehensive plan allowing for development were in place, the city is crippled by voter-approved spending limits and other charter amendments, making is nearly impossible to finance the majority of such growth, Samaan said.
Those who want to remain a city say doing so provides local control over how the area grows, which is why residents voted in 2004 to become a city after Metro pegged it as the next new big suburb after bringing the area into the urban growth boundary.
Those growth projections failed to materialize, however.
A global economic recession put the brakes on growth. Damascus residents failed to approve a previous comprehensive plan that the council had blessed. Plus, political backbiting has monopolized the council’s energy and city staff’s time.
As a result, Damascus has missed its Aug. 31 deadline to have adopted a comprehensive plan. By state law, cities must have such a plan to outline future growth: everything from where streets, sidewalks, parks and sewers will be to how future growth will be managed.
In light of the November vote, however, Oregon’s Department of Land Conservation is waiting until after the ballots are tallied to proceed with enforcement actions. A meeting on the matter is set for Nov. 16, said Jennifer Donnelly, the region’s representative for the department.
Arguments against disincorporation
Meanwhile, just last Thursday, the Damascus City Council in a 4-2 vote agreed to disagree: It’s creating two work groups that will each draft its own comprehensive plan for Damascus residents to vote on next May.
Both plans will have as their foundations the comprehensive plan that the Damascus planning commission drafted this summer for council adoption.
Mayor Steve Spinnett’s group will focus more on private property rights while Council President Andrew Jackman’s group will focus on environmental issues and impacts.
One thing is certain: Until the comprehensive plan is complete, development in Damascus won’t occur, said Shirley Craddick, a Metro councilor whose district includes Damascus.
If Damascus residents choose to disincorporate, Clackamas County would be responsible for completing a comprehensive plan for Damascus, not just Damascus residents, Craddick said.
For Spinnett, that’s a deal breaker.
“There is no question the area will grow and be developed,” he said. “It is a question of when and how. The question is whose voice is going to be heard in that process. Who’s going to listen to us. If we remain a city, we will have more of a say.”
And considering that Metro’s growth concept plan for Damascus has a third of the land earmarked as employment lands, “I know our community does not like that,” Spinnett said.
As for the city being hamstrung by voter-approved spending limits and other charter amendments, “the charter could be moved back to a more traditional charter once the comprehensive plan is approved,” Craddick said. But that would require voter approval and a restored confidence and trust in city government.
Is it a good idea?
Former City Manager Greg Baker agreed that any charter amendments that limit growth or its funding could be repealed as the city grows and evolves. And although he makes for an unlikely ally of Spinnett’s — Spinnett played some key roles in Baker’s forced resignation this spring — Baker said he’s not ready to give up on Damascus just yet.
“I understand why people want a fresh start, but so much money and time has been invested trying to get the city started,” said Baker, who since being forced out of City Hall in May has bought a house and moved to Damascus. “I am in favor of keeping the city going if for no other reason as it gives the city hope for the future.”
If that sounds like a political campaign, Baker said it’s not.
When suggested that one downside of the city disincorporating would be that he couldn’t run for mayor, Baker laughed.
“You’re getting way out there,” he said. “I have seen good leaders in this community who I think should run for mayor. Who at their core care of nothing but Damascus. People who have built their lives and families here. The mayors are here. The format and platform in which they work is what needs to change. We could have the right idea, but the approach is all wrong. I believe there may be other approaches that have yet to be explored.”
Regardless of how the vote ends up, it’s a win-win for Damascus residents, said Wally Bothum, the measure’s other chief petitioner.
“They have a chance to make the choice,” he said.