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State considers sanctions against Damascus

Towns inability to pass plan runs afoul of state mandate


The city of Damascus is at risk of losing state revenues because of its long history of failure to adopt a comprehensive land-use plan.

The state’s Department of Land Conservation and Development, which had given the city two extensions on its comp-plan deadline, has scheduled a hearing to discuss enforcement actions it may take against the city.

Damascus Mayor Steve Spinnett says the action of the state’s DLCD amounts to “interference with our democratic process.”

Meanwhile, City Council President Andrew Jackman says he’s not overly concerned about a loss of state revenue.

Spinnett and Jackman have spearheaded divergent committees to offer polarized comp-plan proposals to voters in the May 2014 election. Spinnett’s plan will be weighted toward individual property rights, he said, while Jackman’s plan will focus more on preserving open space and protecting the environment.

A third — and more moderate plan — sponsored by Councilor Jim De Young also may be headed to the ballot. De Young’s plan was adopted by the Damascus Planning Commission earlier this year, but was rejected by the City Council in August.

The state steps in

A preliminary hearing regarding Damascus’ failure to adopt a plan is set for Dec. 5 in Salem with the formal hearing set for Dec. 20. The location for the latter meeting has yet to be determined, said Jennifer Donnelly, DLCD’s Metro Regional representative.

In a letter to Spinnett, DLCD Director Jim Rue wrote that the organization voted on Nov. 15 to initiate enforcement proceedings because of the city’s “failure to make adequate progress toward its compliance schedule, failure to comply with DLCD orders and failure to adopt a comprehensive plan and land-use regulations as required.”

Patience wearing thin

Damascus was incorporated in 2004 and was supposed to adopt its comprehensive plan within four years.

But nine years later, the city still is without a plan.

Earlier this month, Damascus voters went to the polls on a proposal to disincorporate the city, a move that would have erased the need for a comp plan.

Damascus residents voted 2-to-1 in favor of disincorporation, but the measure still failed because passage hinged on yes votes from a majority of registered voters, which it failed to receive.

With disincorporation off the table, the state says it ran short on patience waiting for Damascus to pass a comp plan.

Rue said in his letter that DLCD “expressed its sadness at needing to take this step,” adding that the city had several extensions and technical support without seeing any results.

“Ultimately, DLCD has an obligation to enforce the requirements of the statewide land-use planning program,” he wrote.

The city must have voter approval for a comprehensive land-use plan because of an amendment to the city’s charter, Jackman said. One plan was proposed, but it was voted down in 2011.

Damascus has already received two extensions from the state to come up with a plan, and the last deadline was missed in 2012, he said.

What’s at stake

The worst that will happen if Damascus is censured at the Dec. 20 hearing is the loss of about $300,000 it receives annually in gas, tobacco and alcohol tax revenue, Donnelly said.

Mayor Spinnett says that action would be too harsh and possibly illegal.

“They don’t have the authority to impose a plan on us, they just don’t,” he said. “I wish the state would have more a positive posture other than to strong-arm us.”

Spinnett said he wishes DLCD would hold off until after the May election.

“I think the state needs to understand that no one wants to pass a comprehensive plan more than us,” he said.

But Councilor Jackman said he doesn’t think withholding the $300,000 would be devastating to the city’s finances because of spending caps that have already been put in place in Damascus.

“Their saber rattling is less of a concern than the fact that we want to get this done,” he said.

That may be easier said than done since voters will have to choose among the three separate comp plans, assuming that De Young is able to place the Planning Commission’s version on the ballot.

First, De Young needs approval of the measure’s constitutionality from the city attorney, a decision that may arrive in early December.

That would be followed by the writing of a ballot title and a challenge period from Damascus citizens. Finally, in order to make it to the ballot, De Young and his supporters, who include Councilor Randy Shannon, must collect a minimum of 304 valid signatures to place the measure on the ballot.

Jackman said he will support whatever plan is passed by the voters. He said he’s confident voters — as well as city officials — are tired of the long process with no results.

“The town is very tired of campaigning with hundreds of signs and flags,” he said. “I think we’ve all grown weary.”




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