By Midge Pierce

By the time you read this, the fate of the Mt. Tabor Reservoirs will either be sealed or entering the most intensive, expensive round of legal machinations yet.

Depending on the outcome of a May 28 City Council appeal hearing on construction to disconnect the reservoirs from city drinking supplies, a Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association citizen task force faces a costly decision. The task force must decide quickly whether to pursue a land use appeal at the state level. Disconnection is still scheduled for this calendar year.

At its May meeting, as the MTNA braced for the City Council hearing, Land Use Co-chair Stephanie Stewart received board approval to advance the case for preserving the integrity of the historic reservoirs to Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals if remedies are still needed. A LUBA appeal would trigger additional review of the Portland Water Bureau’s construction plan and potentially clarify issues such as the Bureau’s jurisdiction in restricting tree planting within 25-foot wide pipe corridors.

The park is loaded with pipe, according to Stewart, who claimed the restriction sets a dangerous precedent. “What’s to prevent them from extending development in the park and disallowing trees elsewhere?” While the scenario is not imminent, decisions today affect future generations, she said.

At the extreme, critics fret about potential land grabs and deforestation by PWB. At best, the two-year, multi-million dollar construction project merely chews up swaths of parkland for two years.

In a May 22 meeting notice, the Bureau of Development services indicated none of the disconnection work will “damage or make non-reversible alterations to the open reservoirs or other historic structures.” But given PWB’s objections to repair and maintenance mandates imposed on the project by the Historic Landmarks Commission, (HLC), lack of trust prevails.

During more than 16 months of dealing with the Water Bureau, MTNA’s task force members expressed outrage at the Bureau’s disregard of the City’s official public involvement principles. Even if the neighborhood association’s legal appeals have by now won concessions from City Council, overarching concerns remain that the Bureau failed to conduct a conditional land use review before seeking approval on the disconnection project.

“Conditional reviews should be given when a project changes the character of a place,” Stewart stated. She contends the 3,400 linear feet of replacement pipe along a 20,000 square foot corridor is significant. “We believe this triggers the threshold of a major change in the character of the park.”

In its City Council land-use appeal, MTNA asked the City to honor HLC directives to spend $1.5 million, out of $14 million budgeted a decade ago, to repair crumbling walls and infrastructure. MTNA also seeks to keep water in the basins at historic fill levels.

Board and task force member John Laursen said continuing the legal appeals were necessary until all criteria are met. “We thought the park would be protected when the Landmarks Commission imposed its conditions. But the water bureau wants no conditions at all. It essentially wants free rein to destroy the historic structures through neglect.”

Going to the state level may be the only way to get full enforcement of preservation requirements. So far, appeals have been an internal process, with the Water Bureau seeking approval from its own governing body – City Council.

“Were a private-sector land developer to appeal the conditions of a land use permit by asserting that ‘it’s just too expensive to meet the criteria,’ it would be laughable,” according to MTNA’s land use appeal report.

A usually mild-mannered board member quipped, “The Water Bureau has taken the position that it owns the land and now it’s in control of what happens in the park.”

Yes, agreed Stewart, adding that Mt. Tabor and its trees belong to citizens as part of Portland’s extraordinary park system. “The trees and the view corridors across the reservoirs define the park. The Water Bureau is saying no trees (above its pipes) period. Pipes are everywhere in Mt. Tabor Park. In future generations, it could go from being a forested park to a deforested space. This is an issue we need to push back on.”

The Water Bureau’s tree restrictions in the park are unprecedented, according to Laursen. “Trees grow above pipes everywhere in the city; roads are above pipes everywhere in the city; infrastructure is above pipes everywhere in the city. To say no trees can be near their pipes in Mt. Tabor is just crazy.”

Requiring mitigation is great in principle, he added, but it should not mean that mature Doug firs removed from Mt. Tabor are replaced with half-inch saplings elsewhere in the City.

The Oregon State Historic Preservation Office, while limited in its regulatory authority, has also weighed in with concerns. In a letter to Stewart and local citizen Eileen Brady, SHPO reiterated what it had told the Water Bureau in an earlier statement: “If the project does not result in the retention of water in the reservoirs, we would be able to re-open the case and find an adverse effect at that point.”

Fundraising continues in this last-ditch effort to save the reservoirs and cover legal expenses that could surpass $30,000. Tax deductible donations marked MTNA-reservoirs can be payable to Southeast Uplift at 3534 SE Main St Portland, 97214.