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Citizens debate park development fee increase

LEE PERLMAN
THE MID-COUNTY MEMO

Last month the Portland City Council heard three hours of public testimony for and against a proposed increase in park-related development fees, including several speakers who call Mid-county home.

The Portland Bureau of Parks & Recreation proposes to increase the Systems Development Charges (SDCs) that it imposes on new development from an average of $3,117 per unit to $8,632 per unit in the central city, $7,879 elsewhere. The bureau would also impose a new SDC for commercial development or expansion at a rate of $410 per employee.

Currently, the bureau says, the fees pay 26 percent of the cost of the new parks that increased development — and the population it brings — needs. The current rate ranks 12th among 14 state jurisdictions that have such fees. The increase would make the central city’s rates the highest in the state, and the fees for the rest of Portland would be second only to Sherwood. They would pay for 75 percent of the cost of needed new parks.

“We all have our favorite parks. We all treasure our parks, and (since 1998) they are recognized as part of our infrastructure,” Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who oversees the Parks Bureau, told council. “Access to parks is extremely important. (Developers) pay for the impact of growth, which is a fair way to pay for the infrastructure that’s needed for growth. The business community has consistently supported our parks. Livability is consistently at the top of the list when businesses decide where to locate and relocate.”

Parks Bureau Director Zari Santner said that funds from SDCs have been used to acquire and develop eight new parks, including Senn’s Dairy and Eastridge parks in Mid-Multnomah County. Arguing for the new commercial fees, she said, “Right now residents bear the whole burden for park development.”

Park Planner Riley Whitcomb said that in other cities, commercial SDCs are “the norm rather than the exception.” With regard to the residential fees, “We found they could be raised and still be competitive” with other jurisdictions.

To invite public input, the bureau assembled an 18-member community task force to discuss the issue. It also held five open houses and made 40 presentations to community groups. “There was a great deal of disagreement about the recovery rate,” Whitcomb said. “There were concerns raised about the effects of the commercial fees, and the program in general, on the business community.”

Task Force member Linda Robinson of Hazelwood agreed, “There was some criticism of our process. We tried to get the word out to a variety of people, but it’s not a topic that’s easy to convey or gets people’s attention.” But, she said, “We actually did agree on a number of things.”

However, with regard to the proper cost recovery rate, opinions ranged from “those who wanted no increases to those who wanted 100 percent cost recovery,” Robinson said. The group eventually decided not to decide, and is leaving the question to the bureau and council.

However, Robinson argued, park development is “essential to our quality of life. New development is tolerable only if we get new resources. If (park) land is available now, over time it will be less available, at higher rates, so we need to get it while we can.”

To those who say the Bureau should concentrate on taking care of the resources it already has, Robinson said, “I have a problem with that. My area is park deficient, so just looking at existing parks leaves us out of it.”

Another commission member, longtime parks advocate Joey Pope, said of the process, “As Goldilocks would say, it was just right. We heard every conceivable view. We could have gone on forever, but time is money.”

Adverse reactions to the increase were brought on because, according to Pope, “we started at such a low rate. We need to increase the rate, and if not now, when?” Referring to concerns about the fees’ effect on housing affordability, Pope said, “I’m a little resentful when this always comes up with regard to parks.”

Not everyone agreed that the process had been “just right.” Several speakers, including neighborhood association representatives, complained that they didn’t receive word of the proposal until Nov. 2. While no one questioned the need for park development, business groups complained that the amount of the increase was excessive and would seriously hinder housing and business development. Representatives of the Portland Business Alliance, Building Owners and Managers Association, National Association of Industrial Office Properties, Home Builders Association, Columbia Corridor Association, Small Business Advisory Council and Commercial Real Estate Economic Coalition all made this argument. Beverly Bookin of the Commercial Real Estate Coalition said council needs to look not just at this increase, but also at the cumulative impact of all fees and charges on development.

Developer Ted Gilbert, a member of the Gateway Urban Renewal Program Advisory Committee, made similar arguments. “I’m a believer that development and parks and open space are mutually dependent,” he said. However, “You have three struggling urban renewal districts: Interstate, Gateway, and Lents,” he said. Increasing development fees, on top of other issues, is “stacking the deck and increasing the odds that you’ll never reach the tipping point” where such districts are successful. Gilbert also objected to the fee schedule’s “one-size-fits-all approach to most of the city.”

Other east Portlanders supported the fee increase. Hazelwood Neighborhood Association Chair Arlene Kimura said, “Currently the only place we have for gathering is green space, and currently there’s not enough. It’s as important as green streets and green buildings.” She said she personally would favor a 100 percent cost recovery rate.

Mary Walker of Friends of Powell Butte said, “Literally every day, another large lot becomes infill. We need places to recreate.” She conceded that such fees do add to the cost of new homes.

Woodland Park Neighborhood Association Chair Alesia Reese decried the Parks Bureau’s “unsafe staffing levels, insufficient maintenance, lack of athletic facilities for students, let alone adults. What do we do if you do not responsibly fund the park system?”

Outer southeast resident Richard Ellis said of his community, “There used to be plenty of room to roam. It’s changed considerably in the last 13 years, and infrastructure hasn’t kept pace. The streets are unsafe. We’re not asking you to turn back the clock or tell people not to move here, but we are asking you for more neighborhood parks. The infrastructure to support growth must be commensurate with that growth.”

Justin Cutler of Montavilla said, “Parts of Portland, especially east Portland, are park deficient. Growth is inevitable, and growth needs to pay for growth.”

Commissioner Randy Leonard was the strongest critic of the proposed charges. “I support SDCs and have supported them in the past, but they need to be affordable and defensible.”

Regarding comparisons to other cities’ fee schedules, he said, “I don’t think we should be at the bottom of the list, and it’s inexcusable that businesses should be paying nothing, but I don’t think we should be at the top. The best tax is the one someone else pays. The fairest tax is the one everyone pays. This is the least painful to existing Portlanders, but is it the fairest?”

Leonard was also upset about an exemption, available to home buyers earning median household income (about $66,000 a year) or less that allows them to escape paying any SDCs. “I appreciate all the hard work that’s been done, but this needs to be more balanced before I can support this,” he said.

In earlier testimony, Sam Chase of the Community Development Network had defended the exemption, saying, “Sadly, this is necessary to provide housing for people who have to choose between paying their rent and paying for food and medicine.” Chase also said, “When parks aren’t available, apartments become the playground, and that has a cost” in terms of wear and tear and damage.

The Parks Bureau staff will offer a specific proposal for council action in the spring.
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