For lovers of trees and haters of how the City of Salem trashes the broad public interest in favor of cozying up to special interests, this is a nice way to start out 2015.
Oregon's Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) has ruled in favor of those who appealed the City's approval of Salem Hospital's plan to build a unnecessarily large parking lot, and demolish a beautiful urban forest, on the old School for the Blind property.
So reports the Salem Breakfast on Bikes blog in "LUBA: City Erred on Parking Lot and Tree Removal Decisions at Blind School."
The effort led by former SCAN Land Use Chair Curt Fisher has prevailed at the Blind School in the appeal heard last month at the State Land Use Board of Appeals.
The board decided for SCAN on two important counts: The City erroneously approved too much parking; and because of this, the tree removals need to be reassessed once a plan with less parking is approved. LUBA remanded the matter back to the City Hearing Officer.
This legal appeal was separate from that of Beverly Rushing, an elderly blind woman who went before LUBA to argue that the Salem City Council's decision to demolish the last remaining School for the Blind building, Howard Hall (a historic structure) was flawed.
Rushing had a good point, since Salem's Historic Landmarks Commission voted to preserve Howard Hall. However, the Mayor and City Council sucked up to corporate special interests, like they usually do, and reversed the Commission's decision.
LUBA ruled in favor of the City of Salem on the Rushing case. (But as I'll discuss below, this doesn't mean a whole lot from a moral standpoint.) I haven't heard whether she will appeal to the Oregon Court of Appeals.
But I have gotten word that Salem Hospital, through its attorneys, is trying to pressure Rushing into not exercising her legal right to appeal the LUBA decision.
What a jerky move by Salem Hospital.
Threaten a old blind woman who is deeply attached to preserving the historic School for the Blind building where she was taught, and doesn't have much money, with having to pay a big judgment for legal fees if she loses an appeal.
Anyone who thinks that Salem Hospital and Salem Health are compassionate, caring, corporate members of our local community, think again. They're out to make money at the expense of neighbors, those who care about preserving history, and anybody else who stands in the way of their bulldozers and construction cranes.
Which brings me back to the South Central Association of Neighbors (SCAN) win.
Salem Hospital is going to have to go before a hearing officer now that LUBA has ruled the City of Salem granted it too many parking spaces. This means that, likely, fewer ancient white oaks would need to cut down.
If Salem Hospital wanted to act like a responsible neighbor to those who live in the area of Howard Hall, and a caring member of the larger Salem community, it would sit down with opponents of its development plans to work out a compromise.
But representatives of Oregon's blind community have repeatedly tried to do that.
So far, Salem Hospital has taken the "my way or the highway" route. If that nasty corporate attitude continues, my feeling is this: the next time anyone from Salem Health, Salem Hospital's parent organization, asks for help or donations, say No way.
Regarding the recent LUBA decision, my wife and I have quite a bit of experience in land use appeals. Here's some things to keep in mind about SCAN's legal win.
First, what is wise is different from what is legal. The Land Use Board of Appeals takes a narrow legalistic look at whether a decision maker, in this case the City of Salem, complied with relevant statutes in making its land use decision.
So this is a pretty big deal for LUBA to smack down City officials. If a "reasonable person" could agree that the officials had fairly good reasons for allowing Salem Hospital to do what it wanted, LUBA would have rejected SCAN's appeal.
Meaning, LUBA isn't a bunch of planning experts who consider whether a decision-maker did the wise thing. They're just concerned with whether the decision-maker had halfway good legal reasons for doing what they did, even if what they did was stupid or wrong.
Thus the City of Salem had to really screw up, in order to be taken to the legal woodshed by LUBA. With Rushing's appeal, the City Council arguably did a stupid, wrong thing, since the Historic Landmarks Commission came up with some excellent reasons to preserve historic Howard Hall.
However, LUBA found that the City Council had some reasons based in law for ordering the building's demolition. Which, again, is enough. Like I said, LUBA doesn't decide whether a land use decision is wise, just whether it is minimally legally defensible.
What this means is that the City of Salem's land use planning "apple" likely is way more rotten than this single legal ruling indicates. Most bad decisions aren't appealed, or even aren't appealable.
LUBA has just given us a peek into how City officials, both elected and appointed, tilt in favor of special interests such as Salem Hospital who have lots of money and power.
Well, a plausible explanation (one which would pass the "reasonable person" test) is that the Mayor and a majority of city councilors are elected with the support of the Chamber of Commerce, Realtor's Association, and other special interest groups -- which have the most money and power in Salem.
So money and power is rewarded with more money and power through political decisions made by those elected with the help of money and power.
Around and around it goes, with the broad community interest getting screwed over, aside from the few times a legal body such as LUBA says, in effect, Stop the bullshit.
Which is good, but the problem is, there's way more bullshit that isn't getting stopped, since it takes quite a bit of money to appeal the City's questionable decisions, and the people getting screwed over by the money-and-power folks are, not surprisingly, the ones without money and power.
This legal win is encouraging. But there's a lot more to be done right here in non-squeaky-clean Salem, Oregon before truth, justice, and fairness prevail in this town.
A final thought that just came to mind: I've seen alternative plans for the Salem Hospital parking lot (which now has to be reduced in size) which allow many, or even most, of the ancient white oaks to be saved. The problem, I keep hearing, is that Salem Hospital wants a perfectly geometric design.
Well, hospital leaders should drive over to Sunriver and look at the roundabouts there. Most aren't really round. They are whatever shape was necessary to preserve the large trees that were there before Sunriver was developed.
I've read a history of Sunriver that says the wise developers of Sunriver, John Gray and Donald V. McCallum, felt that living in harmony with nature was more important than the roads. Some two lane roads even split, with each lane going around either side of a beautiful old tree.
Salem Hospital, a health organization, should wise up and realize how important the natural environment is to human well-being. The parking lot can be redesigned to make it much more appealing to patients, visitors, staff, and neighbors.
It just takes a bit of old-fashioned community spirit and open-mindedness on the part of Salem Hospital.