By Midge Pierce
Score another round for citizen volunteer efforts to protect Mt. Tabor Park. At a June 25 City Council hearing to review reservoir land use arguments, Portland Water Bureau (PWB) and the Mt. Tabor Neighborhood Association announced that an agreement over the future of the park and its historic reservoirs would be ready for submission to Council in July.
Commissioners had charged the two appellants in the land use case to sit down together to hammer out solutions to a 20 month standoff over what happens to Mt. Tabor’s open-air reservoirs after they are disconnected from the city’s drinking water system.
Commissioners were visibly surprised when both parties broke protocol by jointly announcing that some sort of agreement would be forthcoming.
Details of the plan were not available at this writing, but the parties announced at the meeting that water would remain in the basins and some level of repair and preservation would be required for the structures.
Agreement between the two petitioners was a long time coming. MTNA had sought negotiations for nearly two years since PWB presented what a citizen advisory group considered a highly-flawed disconnection plan.
Once negotiations between the MTNA and top officials began in earnest, it appears that a plan came together relatively quickly. The solution still needs Council approval and funding. Likely, the earliest new funding to be allocated would be in 2016 for the 2017 budget.
“Two years ago it became clear that the City was moving full speed ahead with disconnection,” explained MTNA board and advisory group member John Laursen.
“As lamentable as that is, the MTNA realized that the disconnection plan couldn’t be stopped and felt that it was our responsibility to protect the park, not just for the neighborhood, but for the entire City of Portland.”
MTNA’s early efforts resulted in mitigating construction damage, saving mature trees, and ensuring that disconnection could be reversed by a future City Council.
The MTNA has consistently taken the position that the City should have defended the park from the get-go. “The City’s own guidelines spell out that public involvement for such a major undertaking is supposed to be early and robust in the planning and design stage,” Laursen said, adding that the public process was much more vigorous for the Washington Park reservoirs.
A review of the land use process indicates that PWB submitted its first land use application for disconnecting the reservoirs in early 2014.
After MTNA noted that construction plans ignored historic overlays and the reservoirs’ designation on the National Register of Historic Places, PWB resubmitted its application as a more intensively reviewed Type III land use project.
MTNA has argued that the entire disconnection plan should have included public debate on the closure, required under a federal ruling that other cities continue to fight. Critics say it is ironic that the closed reservoir requirement stems from a deadly outbreak of cryptosporidium that occurred in a closed reservoir in another state.
Once the Type III land use application was filed, MTNA was granted two public hearings and advisory group meetings with engineers, but not decision makers. Laursen claims citizens were hamstrung in attempts to protect the reservoirs themselves. “We succeeded in improving the construction plan but we were not allowed to talk about the reservoir structures in any form.
“One of the conditions of a Type III land use project, though, is to have preservation plans in place. All this grief and thousands of hours of volunteer time could have been avoided if the City had agreed to negotiate preservation with us two years ago.”
When the PWB plan was submitted to the Historic Landmarks Commission, preservation became a condition of approval, but the water bureau objected to the condition and filed a land use appeal with City Council. The MTNA countered with its own appeal in order to have legal standing on the issue in front of the Council.
The appeal process also opened an 11th hour window for a broad range of citizens to finally get concerns in front of City Council. While public testimony was allowed at the May 28 hearing, the City implemented yet another restriction.
To avoid the kind of disruptions that erupted at a Washington Park reservoir hearing, Council shut off balcony seating, sending the bulk of citizens to watch proceedings on a closed circuit TV across from City Hall.
Equally draconian measures were undertaken at the June 25 hearings, according to a witness who claims to have seen more than a dozen police officers in full riot gear, and who called this an unnecessary over-reaction.
“Citizens may be noisy, but they have a right to be heard. They are frustrated, feeling like their concerns were not addressed, just dismissed. Yelling is the only option available to them, but they are not dangerous.”
It’s little surprise that Council members greeted the unprecedented joint announcement of an agreement with relief. The written resolution will be submitted to the City this month and if Council approval is forthcoming, it would take place shortly thereafter.
The MTNA’s negotiating team hopes the agreement also wins community support. “The agreement strikes a delicate balance,” according to Laursen. “If others try to alter it, they could destroy it. Compromise is the nature of negotiations, but we think it’s a good solution. We ask the community to respect the work that went into this.”
Meanwhile, fundraising efforts to support preservation continue. If Council approves the compromise, the MTNA will still need funds to monitor any agreed upon maintenance.
Donations can be made to SE Uplift, marked for MTNA reservoirs.