Today the Statesman Journal published an excellent opinion piece by Lora Meisner and Bill Dalton about the City Council's approval of Costco's relocation to a Kuebler Boulevard location adjacent to a residential neighborhood.
As you can read below, Meisner and Dalton argue that City of Salem staff and city councilors, with the exception of Jackie Leung, failed to stand up for the broad public interest -- siding instead with PacTrust (owner of the property) and Costco (the main tenant on the property).
Meisner and Dalton are very familiar with this issue, including the decision by LUBA (Land Use Board of Appeals) that the City Council had to take into account before issuing their approval of the Costco relocation to the PacTrust property. So I trust what they say in their opinion piece.
All I'd add is this.
I heartily agree with them that the City Council is way too deferential and unquestioning of city staff. Over and over, I've observed that even when citizens present solid evidence that what city staff are saying is either untrue, or not the whole truth, city councilors typically side with the staff.
It's hard to figure out why this happens. My best guess is that because city councilors are unpaid volunteers with no staff of their own, they are heavily dependent on City of Salem employees.
So it's sort of like a hostage situation where staff are the ones in control, and the city councilors figure that if they want to get out (politically) alive, they need to cooperate with their captors. Otherwise city staff can make things difficult for a councilor who wants to get something done that requires the willing support of staff.
That said, when the City Council fails to exercise the limited power that it has, city staff become emboldened and push harder for their own point of view. Thus weakness begets more weakness.
I'm hoping that when newly elected members of the City Council are sworn into office next January this situation will change. It isn't healthy when our local elected city councilors, who are the go-between their constituents and City of Salem staff, kowtow to staff as they did with the Costco relocation.
Here's the opinion piece.
PacTrust's Costco a 'wholesale' disruption
On Sept. 28, the Salem City Council voted 6-to-1 (thank you, Councilor Jackie Leung for her courage and support) to approve PacTrust’s application to build Costco on its site on Kuebler Blvd. The “we-had-no-choice” plea councilors used to justify their decision, prompt this follow-up.
Having been involved with this PacTrust proposal since 2018, we feel an obligation to inform Salem residents that the city staff, city attorney and ultimately the majority of city councilors did not have taxpaying resident’s "backs" regarding this development. In fact, to us it is obvious that the city failed its citizens at every turn:
- Failure by city staff and attorney to formalize the conditions noted ("Neighborhood-friendly shopping center," "No Big Box store," "No gas station"…) when rezoning was approved in 2007
- Failure to include traffic as a major concern in the testimony submitted by the city to the State Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA)
- Failure by the city to express "preservation of the grove of trees" (especially the mature heritage white oaks) as another major issue related to the PacTrust site plan
- City Council and staff failure to engage with PacTrust/Costco (ca. 2019/2020) in any meaningful effort to identify a potential win-win site plan, one that might have addressed the multitude of concerns residents identified during public meetings, council hearings and written input.
And, ultimately, the mayor and councilors — except Leung — chose to ignore the "openings" offered by LUBA (and subsequently the Oregon State Court of Appeals) for the city to further address the traffic and tree issues. Here are three more ways the city failed us:
- Affirmed and accepted the city staff’s endorsement of the woefully inadequate and outdated traffic data submitted by PacTrust
- Used the developer’s own written arguments in rejecting other site plan alternatives;
- Basically quoted the testimony written by PacTrust as the basis of the “findings” it formally adopted in approving the Costco-development proposal.
So what can be done now? With regard to the PacTrust/Costco development, maybe not much.
However, as Salem moves forward, consider these three things:
- Council needs to formally incorporate all the protective conditions and restrictions — including those offered by developers — in re-zoning and development-related actions
- City staff needs to make the safety and quality of life — neighborhoods and its residents — its top priority, rather than merely taking every step possible to facilitate development.
- Our publicly elected city councilors need to "ride herd" on city staff to ensure developers adhere to all city rules, regulations, guidelines and codes.
We feel saddened and frustrated that — whether because of (largely baseless) threats of legal action by a developer, and/or sheer exhaustion — our city council took the easy road.
The results: A poorly-planned development with an oversized neighborhood-unfriendly commercial center and fuel depot with massive future traffic jams will be shouldered by our south Salem residents and neighborhoods, ultimately at the expense of all of Salem and its taxpayers.
Lora Meisner is a civic activist who has been involved in flooding and development issues in south Salem. You may reach her [email protected]. Bill Dalton is civic activist and advocate. You may be reached [sic] at [email protected]. Both authors were appellants who originally challenged the PacTrust development.