News | local | Land use

State Losing Patience With The City Of Damascus

OPB | Jan. 10, 2014 10:20 a.m. | Updated: Jan. 10, 2014 noon | Salem, Oregon

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The city of Damascus could lose a portion of its money from the state.  Officials discussed enforcement actions  at a hearing Thursday in Salem. State officials have taken the unusual step of considering sanctions against Damascus, because the city failed  to follow Oregon land-use laws.

Rob Manning was at the hearing in Salem and joins me now.

GRETCHEN: Before we dig into the details - this is pretty unusual, right?

ROB: Yes, very unusual. Most cities were incorporated long before Oregon’s land-use laws were enacted 40 years ago - and they generally developed plans back in the 1970s and ‘80s.

City of Damascus sign

City of Damascus sign

Michael Clapp / OPB

There have been two cities to incorporate recently - Damascus in 2004 and La Pine a few years later. La Pine has a comprehensive plan, but Damascus has had lots of conflict around its efforts to create a plan and still doesn’t have one.

Steve Shipsey with the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development acknowledged the uncommon nature of the hearing.

“The contested case hearing before you today is fairly unique. The Department of Land Conservation and Development and the Commission have not engaged in a contested case on an order of enforcement in quite some time. It’s also unique in what’s not contested in the case before you,” Shipsey said.

Shipsey went on to say that all the parties agreed to the facts - in short, that Damascus has failed to follow state agency mandates.

GRETCHEN: Is that right, that everyone agrees with what the state is arguing?

ROB: For the most part, yes. The attorney for the city of Damascus made a nuanced argument that the city was making “satisfactory progress” - which was one of three state criteria. But since Damascus only had to fall short on one of those to trigger enforcement, the argument was somewhat moot.

GRETCHEN: So, if no one is disputing the charges - what took up two and a half hours?

ROB: Sanctions.   Shipsey, with the state, proposed the clearest penalty - to withhold state grant money.

“We’ve asked for your proposed order to include an order that withholds $300,000, which represents the total of the two grants that the state has provided,” Shipsey said.

The reaction to a several hundred thousand dollar fine on a city of 10,000 people might surprise you. It wasn’t “losing that money will hurt us financially” - quite the opposite.

Tim Ramos, a private practice attorney representing Damascus, pointed out that Damascus voters enacted a spending cap. He says that limit means Damascus can’t spend all the tax money it collects, anyway.

“Clearly this is not a sanction that is going to have a large impact in terms of the budget of the city, because of our charter,” Ramos said.

Ramos argued for two things: that any enforcement be delayed until as many as three comprehensive plan options come before voters - possibly in May. And the city wants the state to act as more of a partner.

The state responded that it has been waiting on Damascus and working with officials there for years. He says the state has run out of patience.

GRETCHEN: So, if money won’t motivate Damascus - are there other steps the state could take?

ROB:The state’s attorney said while the agency had some power, the law didn’t spell out specific alternatives, other than getting more directly involved in planning. Some landowners suggested going that way - but the state says because of Metro’s involvement, that would be messy.

GRETCHEN: What about Metro. The council started the process in Damascus, when it brought the area into the urban growth boundary.

ROB: Right, back in 2002. 

GRETCHEN: So what did Metro suggest at today’s hearing?

Metro is just as impatient with Damascus as the state of Oregon. Metro attorney, Allison Keene, appeared at the hearing by phone.

“We can not just do nothing. We have tried working out of time extensions. We have tried staff help. We have tried monetary help. None of those have worked,” Keene said.

Metro argues that even if the sanction could be seen as somewhat minimal - some estimated it to be about a five percent budget cut - it would send a message that city has to get a plan done quickly.

GRETCHEN: And is Damascus working on a plan?

ROB: Yes.  But like everything in Damascus, it’s not a simple answer.

The plan that the city tried to adopt last year couldn’t get a majority vote on city council last year - that’s before having to get majority voter support in the city, which is a unique requirement in Damascus.

So, the mayor is working on his own plan, which beefs up property rights and development aspects. The council president may come up with a plan that’s more environmentally focused.

And there’s a group called “Move Damascus Forward” that is trying to revive the 2013 plan, bypass city council, and put it directly to voters.

So, as several people said at the hearing, Damascus voters could be looking at one, two, three, or no plans on the ballot, in May, depending on what people decide. And then - as the state noted - any plan that Damascus sends to Salem would have to be approved by state land-use officials.

The next step on the road to Damascus enforcement is late next week, when the hearings officer will give his recommendation.

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