In his 36 years residing in the small hamlet of Southwood Park, Portland, K.C. Rogers has refrained from politicizing his front yard.
“I’ve never, ever in my life had a political sign in my yard,” Rogers said. “I’ve never openly expressed my opinion before.”
But this summer, Rogers decided to take his first public stance on the patch of grass outside his home: a bright yellow poster board with the words “NO ANNEXATION” in black block letters placed in the center of his front yard.
With a Sept. 17 special election looming, the signs have popped up across Southwood Park as a subset of residents decide to make their position clear to all passersby: They have no intention of being annexed to Lake Oswego, which currently hugs their southeast border.
The vote was set in motion last fall, when Southwood Park’s Water District approached the city, citing issues with operating the neighborhood’s decades-old water system. A few of the board members had decided they no longer wanted to serve on the board, and felt the neighborhood’s aging water system might be better managed by Lake Oswego. Plus, some residents had grown fed up with the water itself, which is sourced from a nearby well and saturated with minerals that can give it an earthy tang. Some report fixtures on faucets and laundry machines that regularly break down with mineral buildup.
The neighborhood association had also hosted a poll, with the majority of those in attendance asking Lake Oswego to move forward with an annexation vote.
Lake Oswego responded by authorizing a special election this summer. Ballots went out at the end of August to the neighborhood’s nearly 600 eligible voters.
But just putting the question on the ballot has provoked fury in residents like Rogers, who see the vote as a way for one of Oregon’s wealthiest cities to swell its tax base, while pricing out the neighborhood’s poorest residents.
Southwood’s 298 homes, part of unincorporated Clackamas County, are currently in a taxation sweet spot. Residents don’t pay Multnomah County property taxes, though their mailing addresses say Portland. They don’t have to pay for a pricey Lake Oswego home, but they have access to the city’s moneyed school district. Residents say their water is cheaper than any in the surrounding area.
If residents vote to be annexed, Lake Oswego would take over responsibility for all of the neighborhood’s services, including law enforcement, street maintenance and the water system. In return, utility rates could increase by about $15 a month, with the new water rates phased in after six years. Property taxes would increase by about 10%, phased in over five years.
Officials estimate Southwood could bring in tax revenues ranging “anywhere from the mid-$200,000s to the mid $500,000s” annually.
Some residents see these taxes as a small price to pay for a reliable water supply. If Southwood votes to annex, Lake Oswego has promised to hook the neighborhood up to its new water treatment plant within five years. Others, tired of their neighborhood serving as a cut through for drivers beelining to Interstate 5, are eager for the regular police patrol and traffic calming techniques the city has offered.
But not everyone believes they can afford these services.
Stacy Askew, a hair stylist, said a slow recovery from a bad shoulder injury currently has her paying bills “by the skin of [her] teeth.” Increase the numbers on any of the bills, she said, and her careful budgeting will collapse.
Askew, 42, moved to Southwood two years ago with her son and two rottweilers. She says North Portland had grown too expensive, and she wanted a better school district for her son, now in sixth grade. Southwood’s low property taxes, she said, are “the one thing that got me into this home.”
Sure, the well water leaves splotches on her plants and mineral deposits on her car window. But Askew believes the newly-elected water board, led by Rogers, can spearhead any changes the system requires.
“I live in fear every single day that I can get priced out of this house, and that I potentially would have to move,” Askew said. “It’s just almost like a routine, like Groundhog Day. But that’s Portland for you.”
Askew believes annexation would fundamentally change the culture of Southwood, pricing out the low-income residents in the “little humble homes that line the freeway.”
But some residents say the annexation vote has already changed the texture of the neighborhood.
The posts on the neighborhood’s Next Door page, traditionally a forum for neighbors to recommend roof contractors and auction off household appliances, have become increasingly barbed. A number of residents declined to be interviewed on the record, citing intimidating posts on the website. Southwood resident Ben Priest said he’s been accused of dyeing the water in his home brown to exaggerate the water quality issues.
“Six months ago, [Southwood] was cute and cozy and fun, and now it’s just tense,” Priest said. “If there was a neighborhood barbecue, I wouldn’t go.”
Clackamas County, which is conducting the election, will release initial election results at 8 p.m. on Sept. 17.