By Christian Hill, The Register-Guard, May 10, 2016
The Eugene City Council killed a proposed rezone of the south Willamette area Monday night as councilors and residents began drawing battle lines over how inclusive a new land use planning effort should be.
The council voted unanimously, after little discussion, to withdraw the so-called South Willamette Special Area Zone from further consideration, ending a five-year planning effort that had stalled in November amid a public outcry from neighbors and furious politicking by some councilors.
With the decision, Councilor George Brown said city officials were acknowledging “we gave it our best effort but it just didn’t work.”
“This will set everyone’s minds at ease that it’s going away, it’s not coming back,” he said.
Councilor Chris Pryor, the only other councilor to speak before the vote, agreed.
“We just didn’t do it the right way,” he said. “This is an opportunity for us to say let’s just stop that and let’s try again.”
But divisions were quickly emerging on the council and in the community over the level of participation to be sought in the crucial early stages of a new planning effort.
Mayor Kitty Piercy doubled down on her support for an all-inclusive process. She said she intends to convene a June 20 forum to hear ideas and concerns about south Willamette, including how to move forward, from anyone interested in attending. She has requested a council work session later to discuss proposals for moving forward, including one floated by two councilors, Brown and Mike Clark.
“The most important thing we can do together at this time is to listen and learn from the community so that they can have confidence that we are working toward their collective best interests,” Piercy said in an email she sent to councilors over the weekend.
The proposal by Brown and Clark, however, would put residents, property owners and business representatives in the area in charge of a future planning process.
It calls for a team to develop two plans to guide the future development of the south Willamette commercial area and surrounding single-family neighborhoods. The latter plan would not recommend any rezoning of existing single-family homes, shielding the neighborhood from a key aim of the withdrawn plan to gradually increase density in the area.
The City Council would appoint the planning team based on nominations from the four neighborhood associations in south Eugene. The neighborhoods would recommend how it would be organized and how it would operate.
Many residents have chimed in with their opinion about how inclusive a new planning process should be in emails to the City Council, and in testimony Monday night that preceded the council’s vote.
Eugene resident Sue Wolling, a bicycling advocate who said she frequently drives through and shops in the area, said she attended many of the planning meetings that led to the soon-to-be-defunct plan. She said the two councilors’ proposal “tells me that I shouldn’t have bothered” because the city doesn’t want to heed her views.
“They’d rather turn the planning over to a small homogeneous group of upper-middle class homeowners whose main qualification for the task is that they failed to get involved when the city was asking for public input,” she said.
But Eugene resident Janet Bevirt, who owns property in the area, said city officials should have faith in those who live and work in the area to chart their own path for the area’s future growth.
“It’s not helpful or useful to open conversation about South Willamette’s future rezoning to ‘all-comers’ who call themselves ‘stakeholders,’” she said. “It was because of outsiders that we ended up with the current, controversially flawed plan.”
Brown said critics had a “fundamental misunderstanding” of his proposal and that residents’ voices about the future of the area will be heard later in the process as the plans move toward adoption, including during public hearings before the planning commission and City Council.
But he said having an all-inclusive process in the beginning puts area residents and business “at a disadvantage when you have a huge number of people piling on.”
At issue is a question that could have significant implications for the city’s future land use planning: Should affected neighborhoods or the broader community have the bigger say in the drafting of policies and regulations that reshape a specific area of Eugene?
The proposed South Willamette Special Area Zone, which roughly encompasses the area on either side of the thoroughfare from 23nd to 32rd avenues, was intended by city planners to increase density while creating more walkable and vibrant neighborhoods over time.
But the council delayed adopting the plan after protests from neighbors who were taken aback by the size and scope of the proposed changes and who worried that established single-family neighborhoods would be under assault from taller buildings, more traffic, and loss of views, sunlight and privacy.
A report from Oregon Consensus, a state program run through Portland State University that seeks to resolve conflict in public policy, found the public engagement process for the South Willamette plan to be inadequate, leading to a sense that the proposed rezone was being imposed on them or that city officials weren’t listening.
The city employee who leads the city’s long-range planning team later apologized for what she termed “serious mistakes” during that process and made a commitment to fix them.