Now that most of the easily buildable vacant land in Salem has been utilized for residential development, construction on the acreage that remains is bound to be more controversial.
This was clearly evident at last night's City Council meeting, which featured a lengthy hearing on the proposed Dogwood Heights subdivision near Croisan Creek Road and Madrona Avenue in south Salem.
I watched much of the hearing via the CCTV stream because my wife and I are looking into buying a house in the Salem city limits (currently we live in rural south Salem), and Dogwood Heights is in an area that appeals to us.
We'd come across a notice of the hearing while looking around the neighborhood, and I'd exchanged some emails with the owner of Timbercraft Homes, which will be building the dwellings in Dogwood Heights. Here's a site plan of the subdivision, which is proposed to be built in four phases, moving from north to south (and from the flattest land to the steepest land).
Click to enlarge. Note the circled numbers which indicate the four phases.
I watched some of the testimony from neighbors, and read parts of the written testimony submitted for the hearing. And I viewed all of the discussion among the Mayor and City Councilors prior to a vote being taken on whether to approve the subdivision plan, as recommended by staff.
Download SUB-ADJ17-09 Planning Administrator's Decision
My wife and I led a five-year fight against a subdivision proposed to be built on high value farmland adjacent to our rural neighborhood, a battle that we eventually won in circuit court. So I have a lot of sympathy for neighbors who are concerned about how a new development will impact their quality of life and natural surroundings.
However, I also know from much practical (and painful) experience that while heartfelt concerns make emotional and intuitive sense, land use battles are won or lost on technical grounds, the degree to which a development complies with local and state laws/regulations/ordinances.
So I wasn't surprised when the City Council voted to approve the Dogwood Heights plan. (Councilors Sally Cook and Tom Andersen were two "nays.") Even though there were reasonable concerns raised about the subdivision, the developers apparently complied with City of Salem requirements.
What I found most interesting wasn't the specific objections raised to Dogwood Heights, which mostly involved the steep slopes of Phase 4 and what this meant for the neighbors below (including slide risk, stormwater runoff, fill needed to keep the Phase 4 road to a 15 degree maximum slope).
Rather, the hearing raised some Big Issues relating to infill developments like this one.
Oregon's land use system protects surrounding farm and forest land by requiring every city to have an Urban Growth Boundary. Expansion of the UGB is possible only when there is insufficient land within it for future residential and industrial growth. Thus there was discussion last night about how Salem has used up most of the easily buildable land, which means parcels in West and South Salem that have been previously passed over now are being developed.
Like, the Dogwood Heights property.
People living in the area have gotten used to having 14 acres of natural undeveloped land in their neighborhood. The prospect of a 46-lot phased subdivision being plopped down on that land is disturbing to many Dogwood Heights neighbors. This includes the prospect of construction noise going on for several years for most days of the week, according to a couple, Jason and Sandra Hilton, who submitted advance written testimony.
Download Written Testimony 1
In addition to being bothered by the destruction of most of the trees on the Phase 1 property, they pointed out something than I'd noted also: the size of the lots in the first two phases of the Dogwood Heights development are considerably smaller than surrounding lots -- which date from decades earlier.
The Hilton's said they have one of the smaller lots in the neighborhood, 8,800 square feet. Yet the smallest lot in Phase 1 is 4,600 square feet. So they're worried that neighbors adjacent to the Dogwood Heights development will have a two-story house on a small lot looming over them.
Look: I'd feel exactly the same way if I were them.
It sucks to have nearby thickly-treed open space become a dense subdivision. Heck, quite a few years ago my wife and I bought a 5-acre lot next to our home when it became available, even though we already lived on five acres, because we couldn't stand the thought of someone's house replacing the beautiful tall fir trees that graced the acreage next to us.
Yet as someone said at last night's hearing (I believe it was Mayor Bennett), Oregon's land use system is like the famous Churchill quote about democracy:
No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
On the whole, Oregon's land use system works well. It prevents sprawl. It protects irreplaceable farm and forest land from short-sighted development. But along with all the good things that come with urban density, there are undeniable bad things. And these were pointed out by neighbors of the Dogwood Heights subdivision last night.
Urban open spaces get paved over. Infill development harms the quality of life of neighbors who didn't envision a subdivision being built in their seemingly settled part of town. Denser development often doesn't mesh well with larger lots dating from decades past.
Sure, it is easy for an outsider like me to say, "This is the price that has to be paid in order to have the good things that come with Oregon's land use system." But I'm not living next to the Dogwood Heights subdivision. I feel for those who are bothered by the prospect of 46 new homes being added to their neighborhood, with a concomitant loss of 14 treed acres.
There's no way I can say that the neighbors who spoke up at last night's City Council meeting don't have reasonable objections to the subdivision. But there's also no way I could endorse expanding Salem's urban growth boundary onto high value farmland merely to preserve buildable land within the UGB.
(Last night Mayor Bennett said it would be a mistake to expand Salem's city limits beyond Cordon Road, even though the farmland there is flat and easily buildable.)
Oregon's land use system requires tough choices. I wish it were otherwise.
I didn't see any villains at last night's Dogwood Heights hearing.
I saw a developer, and associated consultants, doing their best to create a quality development. I saw neighbors who had valid concerns about the subdivision. I saw City of Salem staff endeavoring to apply ordinances and development criteria fairly. I saw City Council members struggling to strike a balance between the needs of neighbors and the needs of the Dogwood Heights developer.
Sometimes, as the saying goes, It just is as it is. That may sound trite, but it reflects reality. Life usually is a mixture of good and bad, positives and negatives, winners and losers. Not ideal, for sure. Just real.