‘Quality-of-life monitors’ eye changing City zoning codes

See why many of your neighbors volunteer to plow through the foot-thick binders of Portland Zoning Codes, to help keep our neighborhoods livable …

John McDonald, the new land-use chair for the Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association, gets his questions answered by BDS expert Dr. Mark Bello, during a class break.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
Powellhurst-Gilbert resident John McDonald was one of a roomful of people who spent the better part of a Saturday delving into the intricacies of Portland’s land use policies on January 24.

The workshop, called the “ABCs of Land Use” and presented by three experts – Barry Manning of the Bureau of Planning, Dr. Mark Bello of the Bureau of Development Services, and James Chasse, former land-use chair of the Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association – presented an overview of the city’s land-use policies.

“John McDonald, our new land-use chair, is a very talented person,” said Chasse of his neighbor. “Because of his skills, and perhaps because of a different point of view than mine, he can get together and work out compromises in different situations, to the benefit of our neighborhood.”

More than 30 land-use watchdogs from all over the city come to learn how to respond to proposals for zoning changes in their neighborhoods.

Volunteers time to maintain quality of life
“One of the reasons I’m interested in this topic,” McDonald told us, “is I’m in an R10 area, but I’m surrounded by R5 zones. This means I live in a house, but I’m surrounded by medium-density development. I’m making sure that what gets built in my neighborhood conforms to code.”

McDonald said he’s taken on the challenge of being the land use watchdog for Powellhurst-Gilbert – the geographically largest of Portland’s 95 neighborhoods – because more and more higher-density development is encroaching on single-family residences there. “More than on my own block, I’m also trying to improve the situation in my neighborhood, by keeping a real good eye on what’s being proposed before it’s built.”

To him, “quality of life” means having good street connectivity, sidewalk improvements, and making sure that the adjustments that builders and applicants are requesting do not infringe on other people’s property rights.

“This class is helping me keep current with the code and with the land use process,” McDonald said. “It’s great to be able to get answers directly from city officials.”

Here holding two voluminous binders, detailing Portland’s Zoning Code, is Sellwood resident – and land-use committee chair for his neighborhood – Mat Millenbach.

Land use primer
Past SE Uplift Chair Paul Leistner, now working on projects with the Office of Neighborhood Involvement, said, “Portland’s land use system is so complex! If you don’t understand the system, it’s difficult to have an effective community voice.”

For example, Leistner said, staff members from City bureaus are explaining what neighborhood land-use volunteers should do when they get a letter proposing development.

Dr. Mark Bello listens, as Marguerite Feuersanger – also from Portland BDS – tells why neighbors must promptly act on zoning notifications if they are to obtain “legal standing” on impending changes.

Marguerite Feuersanger, from the City’s Bureau of Development Services, urged class attendees to make comments in a timely way. “Being timely helps give you ‘standing’; and ‘standing’ is required to challenge or appeal a decision.”

We learned that “standing” is the ability of a land-use representative to demonstrate to a court or bureau that the neighborhood has sufficient connection to, and can be harmed by, a change in code.

City of Portland’s Bureau of Development Services (BDS) representative, Dr. Mark Bello, Ph D, condenses centuries of land-use planning into a few, concise sentences.

History of zoning in 60 seconds
We were intrigued that Dr. Mark Bello, Ph D, city planner at the Bureau of Development Services, managed to condense the history of city codes and of zoning – spanning from the antiquity up till last week – in fewer than 200 words:

“Zoning actually began in the Middle Ages,” Bello began. “The purpose then was to keep the slaughterhouses out of the city. These rules, or ‘codes’, were put in place to regulate noxious industries and keep them out of the town centers.

“Portland’s first zoning code, introduced in 1924, was based on the 19th century regulations instituted by other cities.

“The first real revision here came in 1959, suggested by a consultant from Los Angeles. It was a very basic segregation of uses for land. Not recognizing that that we were moving from a postwar era into the future, it assumed that we would have a low density, suburban-style city of 3 million people indefinitely.

“In the 1960s and ’70s we saw new social issues – like the environment – and started to change our policies. In 1980, the Comprehensive Plan was institutionalized as the 1990 Zoning Code, with which we continue to tinker.

“The Portland Plan looks at 1990’s policies and zoning codes. In January (2009), the City of Portland announced the creation of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. They will revisit the issues, proposals, and public process which are involved in changing policy and zoning.”

Portland Planning Bureau’s Barry Manning explains how his bureau interacts with the Bureau of Development Services.

Popular class to be repeated
McDonald said he was glad he got a seat in this class – while free, it’s limited to 30 participants.

“We had almost twice as many people want to sign up as we had spaces,” Leistner confided. “Anyone can come; they need not be a neighborhood association land use chair. We hope to offer another class later this spring.”

Part of the City’s goal for the Office of Neighborhood Involvement is to increase the ability and capacity among members of the community at large, Leistner said. “This will give more people an effective voice in public decision-making.  If you don’t know the ins and outs and all the nuances of how things work, it’s difficult to do that. Knowledge is power.”

© 2009 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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