At the recent Wilkes Community Group open house held to answer questions about the city’s newly acquired future hybrid park — Wilkes Creek Headwaters Natural Area — angry neighbors vented frustrations to a panel of city representatives about stabilization work the city did on it in August.
Metro and the city of Portland paid $1.96 million in February to acquire the 20.5-acre Roughton property on the city’s eastern edge, a finger shaped, former filbert farmstead bordered by Northeast Fremont Street on the north, I-84 on the south, between 153rd and 155th avenues. It was one of few remaining privately held, large undeveloped parcels of land in east Portland. They are planning for a 16-acre natural area and, someday, a four-acre developed park at the northern end of the 20.5-acre site.
Wilkes Creek Headwaters Natural Area is the latest milestone for Metro’s 2006 voter-approved Natural Areas Program, which protects water quality, wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation opportunities for future generations.
The cost was divided equally between Metro’s 2006 natural areas bond measure, Portland’s share of the Metro bond and funds from Environmental Services’ Grey to Green initiative; the city, which has two-thirds ownership of the site, is overseeing natural resource and restoration work and the public access planning through its Portland Parks & Recreation bureau.
To be more efficient, agencies involved dealt with issues for which they were best suited. Metro’s focus was on the structures and the city was responsible for the natural area stabilization work.
The issues roiling neighbors include: removal of four-acres of English holly trees, “Some of the largest anyone had ever seen,” said Susan Barthel, Columbia Slough Program Coordinator for Portland’s Environmental Services; limited access; poor communication with neighbors; security; demolition and salvage of the two-story log cabin residence and outbuildings; and removal of a dam on the property, causing, according to one Wilkes resident, hundreds of pounds of sediment to be deposited in the creek bed on his property near Sandy Boulevard.
Neighbors expressed concerns now the property is public about how transients could be prevented from setting up camp in the property’s upper reaches in the uncultivated filbert orchard, out of neighbors’ view.
North Precinct Officer David Kemple urged residents to call Park Rangers for park security issues and to use the police non-emergency line if they witness a crime like drug dealing or vandalism. A PP&R representative said a pull post would be installed at the Klickitat Street entrance, preventing unauthorized vehicles access.
A few days after the contentious meeting with a panel of Portland Parks & Recreation, Environmental Services and police, Steve Lynch, who has lived next to the property for 12 years, said his experience with city and Metro officials has been frustrating. “They’ve done the most possible damage in the least amount of time I’ve ever seen any neighbor do,” Lynch said. “They will look you right in the eye and tell you what you want to hear, and tomorrow the trucks are in. I’m not going to be nice anymore.”
He acknowledges his new neighbors’ right to do what they want with the property, but objects to the way it happened and how quickly it transpired. Lynch also acknowledges living next to a farm has spoiled him; the trees in question provided a nice screen between him and his Springbrook Ridge neighbors. “It was like living next to a farm. I never saw the neighbors east of me because of the holly, but now I see them all,” he said.
Lynch said contractors the city hired did not seem to care what kind of damage they did to the property’s only access, a privately owned, 15-foot wide gravel road. “Just the amount of noise and chaos they caused,” Lynch said. “They destroyed my neighbor’s front yard by parking heavy equipment on it; they blocked driveways, including mine, and they damaged the gravel road with their heavy duty equipment. They could have spent twenty minutes fixing the road with their big cats, but they didn’t.”
Lynch said he spent a day getting gravel and repairing the road himself. “I use this road every day to get in and out,” he said. “I have to be able to use it.” He does not want to see “200 people a day” using the road (his estimate of usage when developed). In addition, when he calls the city to complain, he said, he gets the run around. “Nobody seems to care and nobody seems accountable.”
In an interview with Alice Blatt, Wilkes Community Group, a few days after the meeting, she said she was thrilled when she heard the city bought the property. “To have this part of the EC (environmental conservation overlay zone) retained in the city’s hands is, as far as I’m concerned, wonderful.”
She said she has been urging the city to buy the Roughton property since the mid- 90s when the 20.5-acre property to the east, a mirror image of the Roughton piece, was bought and became the Springbrook Ridge housing development, on and around the EC.
Blatt and a few others from Wilkes met with “a whole bunch of city people” in April to discuss the property; she suggested another, wider meeting with neighbors of the property. Blatt was told because a stabilization plan for the property was complete; another meeting with more people would be moot.
In June, the city sent a letter to a list of adjacent property owners outlining stabilization plans for the property, including an oblique reference to “… removal of invasive species” apparently a reference to the holly trees.
Blatt thinks people do not respond as well to an informational letter sent to them as they do to a notice of a scheduled meeting. “It’s too bad for the neighbors and too bad for the city they don’t get all the information ahead of time.”
In August, Blatt said, she started hearing complaints about what the city was doing and called her own neighborhood association meeting, mailing notices to 300 addresses. More than 40 neighbors of the new natural area showed up. Their major concern was neighbors’ insecurity in their back fence area because of the removal of the screen of hundreds of holly trees.
“The city would have benefited from hearing earlier, just not because they may or may not have made any change in their plans, but, in an area of this sort where the city is purchasing land that few of the people involved in the city are near or have had any experience with, they would benefit with just at least one communication with the neighbors before going ahead with plans to learn whatever they can that might improve, in some way, the manner in which way they conducted the process they had in place,” Blatt said.
Deborah Lev, Portland Parks & Recreation’s Local Share Program Manager for the 2006 regional bond measure funds, said when the city acquires property with funds designated for parks and natural areas, public involvement is neither sought nor considered when planning stabilization work. She said there are long-term maintenance issues and things they want done quickly.
“Okay, we just bought this property. It was private property, so we are responsible,” Lev said. “What do we do so we can manage it as a park? People can come to it now, so security is an issue. Where do we want people driving in? If trees need pruning, we are going to do that. If you have an empty building sitting in the middle of it, that’s not okay. For safety, public risk and liability concerns alone, we do not want to leave an empty building on the property.”
Lev pointed out that if a private developer purchased the property, neighbors’ experience with “noise and chaos” of construction of a housing development would be worse than the proposed hybrid park.
Now that major stabilization work is complete and, like other undeveloped parks in park-deficient east Portland, the Wilkes Creek Headwaters Natural Area could remain undeveloped as long as ten years or more.
Lev said because agencies have a two-year period to use capital funds designated for acquisition on stabilization projects, the restoration work will continue. Because the city is spending money on restoration and replanting native species, and because English holly is on the city’s invasive species list, the city removed the trees to remove the future seed source.
Kathleen Brennan-Hunter, Metro’s Natural Areas Program Director, who was not at the meeting, said the Wilkes Creek Headwaters property is unique because it feeds into the Columbia Slough and is part of its watershed. Metro determined the residence and outbuildings were not salvageable. She said if the residence was habitable, they would have kept it and rented it. Metro also sent a letter to neighbors with its plans for the property and interacted with them face to face on many site visits; some were in favor of taking the house down Brennan-Hunter said.
“From the outside or afar it may have looked fine, but the house actually was degraded,” said Brennan-Hunter. “It was not in pristine condition. Neighbors may have had a perception of the house, but it didn’t jive with what we found when we looked at it closely.”
Lynch vehemently disagrees on the condition of the residence. “I was there often. It was a beautiful, two-story log cabin.” If the house was not salvageable Lynch asks why did the city permit an overhead and underground utility upgrade and why did Ed Roughton, son of the deceased property owner, re-roof the house a few months before it was demolished?
At the meeting, Greg Reiter, who lives on Sandy Boulevard with Wilkes Creek running through his property, said when the dam was removed it released enough water into the creek’s channel to fill a large swimming pool; and along with it sediment, collecting 16 inches deep on his property.
“How could you remove the dam with no review or study on how it would affect downstream property?” Reiter pointedly asked Susan Barthel. “We do not regulate the waterways in the way Greg thinks we do.” Barthell said. “You destroyed it!” Reiter shot back. Barthell explained that the contractor, who was hired by Metro, siphoned water from the pond, directing it along a 700-foot grassy swale before the dam was removed. In addition, she had pictures she passed around to prove it.
Reiter filed a complaint with the Bureau of Development Services over the dam’s removal. The bureau determined it did not have jurisdiction, and referred it to Environmental Services. This bureau has no jurisdiction to hear Reiter’s complaint either. Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality is the controlling authority in this case.
Days after the meeting, Barthel said the spring box covering the natural spring source as it emanates from the ground is in the East Buttes, Terraces and Wetlands Conservation Plan city council approved in 1993. However, the pond and dam are not; consequently, not part of the city’s municipal stormwater management program either.
Brennan-Hunter disagrees with Reiter’s assertion also. She said the dam, not serving its original purpose, was preventing the natural spring from serving its full, original purpose: feeding the Columbia Slough.
A contractor doing the dam removal work went to Reiter’s property to have a look, but did not see the sediment Reiter said was there. “We could find no evidence of his claims, she said. “We didn’t see any evidence of a flush of sediment; we had sediment fences set up at the base of the damn and at the culvert on the site that didn’t show any evidence of sediment coming from the dam. If he has sediment on his property, it didn’t come from the dam removal.”
Two weeks after the meeting, PP&R sent out an e-mail telling residents who signed up to tour the property that a parks representative misspoke indicating the site was open to the public and they wanted to encourage visitors to the site. “We will keep the site closed to the public through next spring while restoration is happening in the natural area and grass is being established where the holly was removed,” the e-mail said.