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'Historical' plan divides Eastmoreland

PHOTO BY DAVID F. ASHTON  - Before the annual Independence Day parade started, some neighbors stopped to look at maps and exhibits put up by the Eastmoreland Historical District proponents. The Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association (ENA) Land Use Committee is proposing to have a large area of that neighborhood be designated an official “Historical District”.

This idea doesn’t set well with some neighborhood residents, who have banded together under the banner of “Keep Eastmoreland Free”.

“This is a continuation of what we’ve attempted to do over a period of years,” said ENA’s immediate Past President Robert McCullough, now the organization’s Treasurer, after an executive committee reshuffling at a special board meeting on July 19.

“In a nutshell, the effort of creating a Historic District is to preserve trees, lawns, and historic buildings, and preserve the livability of the neighborhood,” McCullough said.

The ENA Land Use Committee proposed some changes to the City of Portland Zoning Design Overlay that protected trees and lawns, McCullough told THE BEE. “After the city rejected that, we followed a Reed Neighborhood proposal to change zoning to R-7. Amazingly, the Reed Neighborhood [Association] had no problem getting the R-7 designation – but Eastmoreland has.”

The committee started considering the idea of an Historic District couple of years ago, he observed. “It’s not my favorite option, because it is a lot of work. If you undertake it you have to do it honestly. It’s going to go to the United States Park Service. There are several stages where is reviewed, and you have to have all of the facts and figures in order,” McCullough explained.

Nonetheless, on May 26, the ENA held a neighborhood workshop to discuss the proposed Eastmoreland Historic District. Reportedly, 237 households signed in at the meeting.

“The attendance figures demonstrate an increasing sense of urgency about the loss of heritage, and the impact of city zoning policies,” wrote Land Use Committee Co-Chairs Rod Merrick and Clark Nelson in their posted meeting summary.

From a distance, it appeared as if Eastmoreland neighbors were favoring the use of an Historic District as – more or less – a land-use strategy.

However, while THE BEE was covering the Eastmoreland Fourth of July Parade this year, it became clear that not all Eastmoreland residents favor the Historical District initiative – and in fact, some are vehemently opposed to it.

At the parade, two canopies were set up on the sidewalk near Duniway Elementary School, about 20 feet apart – one with folks promoting the district initiative; and another with people who were against the idea.

“Some of our friends are against the Historic District, and told me how these districts can restrict property owner’s rights,” said Cameron Johnson, who said he lives on S.E. 32nd Avenue near Claybourne Street.

“It’s concerning we’re quite far down the path for getting Eastmoreland being designated a Historic District; I got a little bit alarmed by that,” Johnson remarked, explaining why he is campaigning against the initiative.

As neighbors choose sides, during these summer months, the neighborhood association will begin a historical and architectural survey; as many as 40 volunteers will be trained in assessing properties.

“Then, we have also hired a consulting firm, HYPERLINK "http://www.aecom.com/blog/city/portland/" AECOM, who are experts in surveying, and will bring in the architectural historian capabilities,” McCullough explained.

“Once historical and architectural survey is complete, then we’ll sit down and draw the district’s boundary. Right now we don’t know what that will be. That’s what the architectural historians will help us learn,” McCullough said.

But, of course, at this point it is far from a done deal. The next step is to take a neighborhood-wide poll. “We will send a ballot to everybody in the neighborhood and ask them to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the Historical District,” McCullough continued. “If most people say ‘yes’ will probably go ahead; if most people say ‘no’ we will probably stop. Obviously there is no reason to go ahead if most people don’t like it, because we all live here.”

While McCullough said he still believes a “pretty strong majority” of homeowners favor the initiative, clearly some do not.

“The ‘bottom line’ for me is, I want to be able to do with my property whatever I want to do that’s legal, in the City of Portland,” said longtime Eastmoreland resident, local businessperson, and Past President of the Sellwood Westmoreland Business Alliance, Tom Brown.

“I believe we already have development rules in Eastmoreland,” Brown told THE BEE. “We have a special 25-foot setback from the street. I trust my neighbors to do the right thing most of the time. I also think that Eastmoreland needs to share the burden to accommodate some of the population growth, along with the rest of the city.”

There could be unintended consequences that come with an Historic District, Brown observed. “It could potentially limit people who could buy homes in Eastmoreland. I love some of the new houses that have gone up; I don’t want to see the neighborhood locked into European architecture. I think change is cool, and good for neighborhood.”

An additional consequence of having an Historic District, Brown said, is having to go through a longer – and uncertain – approval process. “Adding a dormer or a porch – these do not impact the trees,” Brown said. “That’s really not the way to save the trees. Most people are not taking down trees to make additions.”

Brown pointed out that his house was built in 1927. “I’ve done a lot of construction in my work life, and still work on old buildings all the time. Some of these old houses were built with such shoddy construction, it seems like the city should make it easier to demolish the houses. They have lead paint, bad or no insulation, some of them have turn-of-the-century electrical wiring.”

Another neighbor, Mary Kyle McCurdy, Policy Director and Staff Attorney with “1000 Friends of Oregon”, said she heard concerns expressed in the June ENA meeting, and seen in written materials. “It’s about the tree canopy and demolition. A Historic District seems to be the wrong tool, and overkill, to address these issues.”

About preserving the neighborhood’s tree canopy, McCurdy commended the neighborhood association’s Tree Committee for their good work. “From what I understand, their concerns are that we have a lot of old trees that are going to die naturally, at approximately at the same time.

“What we need to be doing now is planting trees to replace those as they die off,” McCurdy said. “We also have Dutch elm disease here, and we have an inoculation program which is not an inexpensive program.

“We also think this is an unwise use of neighborhood association funds, which should be spending these funds on tree planting,” McCurdy added. “Creating such a district is not a very neighborly thing to do.

“This seems very negative, not just in terms of our own volunteer time to oppose this, but in terms of the association creating unnecessary invasiveness in the neighborhood. Some of the comments made in the May meeting – where people were making judgmental statements, pointing out houses that have already been built here. These judgments felt very unwelcoming, and we think that’s really unfortunate.”

Both McCurdy and Brown said that, during the May meeting, they recalled hearing that the funding for this initiative project was coming from an “anonymous donor”.

“At the June meeting, they said there was not, in fact, an anonymous donor, but it was being paid for by the neighborhood association,” McCurdy commented.

The two sides disagree whether or not an Historic District:

· Will increase property values;

· Increase costs, fees, and review stages for remodeling;

· Will cause restrictions that could keep out new families;

· Could be filed for by any one individual, once the historical and architectural survey has been completed;

· Is permanent and cannot easily be revoked.

The "Keep Eastmoreland Free" group asserts that the process is undemocratic: "A property owner who does nothing is counted as supporting the Historic District", their materials say.

"Let's walk through that," McCullough responded.

"I've gotten a half dozen e-mails that ask why I'm doing this 'in secret'. The answer is we are the grassiest of grass-roots organizations that works hard to bring everyone in. We have better involvement than probably almost any other neighborhood association in Portland.

"The Board proposes canvassing every household in the neighborhood with a questionnaire. We can't put an item on an official election ballot; we're not a governmental organization," McCullough said.

Further, he assured it wouldn't be a "push-poll" that, due to clever wording, could allow only for a "yes" response to the Historic District. "It's do you agree? Yes -- or no. If, after we've done all the homework, and everyone hates the idea, I'll be damned if I'm going to shove it down people's throats -- I live here. Ultimately, it is the decision of the ENA Board of Directors."

Asked his opinion, McCullough replied, "I identify more closely with our libertarians; I don't want anyone messing with my land. At the same time, am diametrically opposed to those who say we need lots of infill -- and let's knock everything down and build in lots of housing."

In his comments, Brown concluded by saying he hopes his neighbors won't rush into adopting a Historic District. "There are a whole lot of things we don't know."

McCurdy said that Eastmoreland homes have been constructed with a wide variety of architecture. "This neighborhood was not built all the same time; it's evolved over decades. Why stop this organic process in 2016?

"Don't leave it up to others," McCurdy urged. "Neighbors need to inform themselves; read the pros and cons on their own, make their own decision, and then take action."

A wealth of information is available on both sides online at:

· http://www.eastmoreland.org

· http://www.keepeastmorelandfree.org

After a "valid petition" was submitted, a special Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association Meeting was held on the evening of July 27 at Reed College to air the matter. As per ENA bylaws, discussion was limited to the topic of the Historic District designation; no motions or votes were allowed, and there were no quorum requirements.

What's next? Apparently, the survey. It will be essential for Eastmorelanders on both sides of the issue to find out just how many supporters each side actually has.