By Midge Pierce
Diversion of Portland’s drinking water from the Mt. Tabor Reservoirs moved closer to actualization with the Historic Landmarks Commission’s (HLC) recent turnabout to conditionally approve the Portland Water Bureau’s reservoir disconnection application.
Now, to amp up its efforts to fully protect the basins’ structural and historic integrity, Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association (MTNA) is seeking donations for potential land use appeals. The funds would be used to for appeal costs and to cover legal fees as well as non-restricted administrative expenses related to their efforts.
Clearly, countless hours of volunteer efforts influenced HLC’s decision to impose stringent approval conditions on Portland Water Bureau (PWB).
The mandates require the Water Bureau to repair and maintain the basins according to a 2009 Mt. Tabor Historic Structures Report. The plan calls for structural restoration, retaining water in the basins at “historic” levels and removing non-historic fixtures and lights.
The HLC approval was required because the storied, Olmsted-designed basins are on the National Register of Historic Resources. The two-year pipe cut and plug construction is slated to begin this year.
During two thick-with- tension hearings in which public testimony was permitted, citizens charged that years of PWB neglect have led to serious site deterioration. It took two more hearings before the Landmarks Commission reversed an earlier tie vote that denied the PWB application.
The conditional approval came with sharp words from Landmarks Commissioner Harris Matarazzo about PWB’s lack of trustworthy stewardship.
“The only reason I’m voting for it,” he said, is because “the structures will be in a much better position.”
MTNA intends to make sure it is. “We put up a good fight,” said MTNA Land-use Chair Stephanie Stewart. The fundraising campaign will enable continuation of its fight. Contributions will be funneled through SE Uplift so that donors can deduct donations from their taxes. (SE Uplift is a district coalition supported, ironically, by the City.)
The cost for the first appeal to City Council is $5000, unless Council waives the fee. If MTNA appeal fails in City Council, it can then appeal to the state Land Use Board Authority (LUBA).
Legal costs mount quickly as an anonymous group of citizens discovered. They reportedly spent more than $20,000 in private fees for legal advice to block what environmental sustainability advocates call the unnecessary diversion of Bull Run water that currently runs through an energy-efficient, gravity-fed system to the open, fresh-air purified reservoirs.
Factual and procedural discrepancies may be the basis for appeals. Water fill levels 15% below historic norms were inaccurately entered into the Feb. 9 approval document, according to Stewart. She believes the error undermines the spirit of HLC’s conditional approval.
The first appeal was due to be filed Feb. 27. At this writing, MTNA’s appeal status is uncertain. Also unknown is whether PWB elected to file its own appeal to void the conditions.
A spokesperson for PWB said the City does not yet know where the administration and money will come from for the extra expenses, as yet not projected.
Hillary Adam, the City Planner assigned to the application, asserted that the Bureau of Development Services (BDS) will work with the Water Bureau to ensure preservation work stays on track by the 2019 completion date.
Who will monitor the restorations is another unknown. Adam said the work will be exempt from further Landmarks review. “We work on a complaint-driven basis. The code exempts maintenance review by HLC.”
Building a war chest to ensure PWB does not balk at the mandates is critical, according to longtime activist Floy Jones.
In a Friends of the Reservoir post, she raises the spectre of the historic structures deteriorating to the point that PWB could issue emergency safety protocol to demolish them.
With both environmental and aesthetic issues at play, MTNA Board member John Laursen charged that the City had a responsibility to involve citizens in decision-making and design proposals. “The City is unpredictable. The rules change all the time. It’s like being blindfolded in a minefield.”
Still, Laursen praised HLC for pressing for strong protections. “The outcome is so much better than it might have been.” Laursen is pleased that a city agency is now on record supporting many concerns the MTNA felt PWB had spent a decade ignoring.
Laursen, along with Stewart, served on a citizens advisory committee that negotiated mitigation to park damage potentially caused by deconstruction stemming from a federal edict to discontinue open air reservoirs.
“Without our interference the park would have been eviscerated,” he said.
A dangling question is where the money will come from for restoration, especially given recent criticism of PWB for non mission-critical expenditures. Deferred repairs alone are estimated at some $1.5 million. Ongoing maintenance will cost millions more.
Laursen says it is pittance compared to the millions spent building covered water storage at Powell Butte.
Donations to Mount Tabor Neighborhood Association’s Land Use Appeal Fund can be sent to Se Uplift, 3534 SE Main St. Portland, OR 97215.