By Midge Pierce
In a stunning tour de force, the Historic Landmark Commission denied the City’s application to disconnect Mt. Tabor’s reservoirs from Portland’s drinking water supplies. The three dissenting votes that split the decision turned on the lack of a clear plan for deferred maintenance that has allowed the structures to deteriorate.
But it’s not game over. To try to reverse the decision, the Bureau of Development Services has called for a fourth HLC hearing to present an adjusted application on Feb. 9. No public testimony will be allowed.
The disconnection plan is the Portland Water Bureau’s response to an Environmental Protection Agency ruling against open air reservoirs. Because the reservoirs are designated resources on the National Historic Register, the HLC was tasked as the final local agency review before project construction later this year.
“It’s amazing commissioners had the backbone to stand-up to the City,” said Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association board member John Laursen echoing the surprise of citizens who have opposed disconnection for more than a decade.
But it’s not game over. The Bureau of Development Services has called for a fourth HLC hearing to reconsider an adjusted application. Conditions needed to swing the vote include commitment to a maintenance plan that may cost $3 million to execute.
Landmarks Commissioner Jessica Engeman said that once the basins are offline, maintenance incentives evaporate. “Without a purpose, the reservoirs will be at risk of further degradation.”
Commissioner Carin Carlson said the disconnect would have major impact on the integrity of the structures. “It’s irresponsible to approve a plan without funding and stewardship assurances.”
Commissioner Harris Matarazzo said he could not support a project that spent money for interpretive panels when the reservoir concrete is crumbling. Citing City Council’s lackluster leadership, he called for mandated mediation. “It’s inconceivable that the government can’t sit down with concerned parties. It holds private citizens to a much higher standard (than itself).”
One significant concession made by the Portland Water Bureau at an earlier hearing was its agreement to fill the basins, but, PWB has continually stonewalled requests by HLC to fully commit to a maintenance plan approved in 2009. One observer pointed out that at the current rate, repairs will take 57 years.
Citizens at the three HLC reservoir hearings have been staggered by BDS’ strong-arming of the all-volunteer commission. “They badgered them, trying to force them to do their will,” said Laursen.
It’s difficult for volunteers appointed by the City and dependent on the City for information to resist the City’s agenda, he explained. At each meeting, the HLC requested additional information from PWB and assurance that it would satisfy overdue maintenance needs. Three times the Bureau of Development Services pressed back for unconditional approval of the water bureau’s disconnection plans.
After public testimony closed at the Jan. 12 hearing, Laursen said, “We out-testified the Water Bureau, but BDS hijacked the meetings. They pushed commissioners toward decisions they’re reluctant to make.”
The MTNA position is that maintenance costs could have been kept in check with ongoing repairs. Without a clear maintenance plan, the proposal could be invalidated. A violation of regulations leaves grounds for an appeal to the Land Use Board Authority (LUBA).
“MTNA is prepared for that possibility,” said Stephanie Stewart, landuse chair and a member of the citizen’s task force charged with mitigating reservoir disconnection damage. “The PWB only provided 6 of the 11 items initially requested by the landmarks commission.”
Laursen added, “The staff giving wrong information is not actionable, but procedural violations are.”
Last fall, after a public meeting about the future of the reservoirs turned contentious, PWB cancelled a planned public hearing about what comes after the reservoirs are disconnected.
During Landmark hearings on Dec. 1 and January 12, testimony was pointed but civil. “Historic preservation is about respect,” said activist Johnnie Dwork, citing PWB broken promises and dismissive actions toward citizens.
Longtime water bureau critic Floy Jones called PWB masters of the mislead. “They said they would bring all stakeholders together. It never happened.” She contends there were less onerous options to tearing up the park with construction and disconnecting Portland’s drinking water from the reservoirs.
Joe Walsh testified that disconnection will leave the reservoirs vulnerable to development. “Take away the prime reason for their existence and somewhere along the way, some City Council will want to fill them in and sell the land.”
Daniel Berger, M.D., aka Dr. Dan, offered, “It’s worth pointing out that the rushed deadline to complete this project was fabricated by the City.” He claimed it’s not too late to submit new timelines for the Oregon Health Authority to submit to the Environmental Protection Agency to delay closure.
“Other cities have done this and succeeded. Why is the City racing to complete this project…Because they and their corporate partners realize that the rules driving the project are very likely to change in 2016. Don’t let the City bulldoze over proper policy and good governance.”
Lawyer Steve Wax said he was astonished to hear PWB’s claim that there is no zone change involved in the disconnection. Calling the statement a clear inconsistency, he said that taking the reservoirs offline was certainly a usage change that would require rezoning.
Added lawyer Ty Wyman, BDS does not want “a conditional use application approval because of the level of scrutiny it summons. “This is a 120 year-old resource. The law requires it.”