January 5th, 2009 5:33 pm | by NIGEL JAQUISS News | Posted In: City Hall

City Prevails on Most Points in Controversial David Douglas Satellite District


OK, that headline might be a little confusing but so is the underlying issue.

Here's what you need to know: Last March, Portland's City Council voted to use some money from the River District Urban Renewal Area build a new school in the David Douglas school district on land east Portland school district already owns. That was a novel plan, given that David Douglas is about 10 miles away from the Pearl District, aka the River District.

When the Council ordered the city's urban renewal agency, the Portland Development Commission, to implement the plan, some former PDC staffers and commissioners were infuriated by the move.

They saw the creation of a so-called "satellite district" far from the neighborhood where tax dollars are being generated as a threat to both PDC and the historic practice of using urban renewal monies.

Those critics banded together in a group called "Friends of Urban Renewal." And they hired top land-use lawyer Steve Pfeiffer to challenge the city's move in front of the state Land Use Board of Appeals.

On Jan. 2, LUBA issued an opinion of the six points Friends of Urban Renewal made. The decision is not yet online and our new server is refusing to let me post it, so I'll summarize the decision now and post it when technical difficulties clear.

Basically, LUBA rejected five of the six objections FUR raised. Among the two most important objections that LUBA rejected: whether the city had the legal authority to create a "satellite district," and whether that satellite met the legal definition of "blighted" which is a pre-condition for urban renewal.

LUBA found that the state law governing urban renewal neither explicitly permits nor forbids satellite districts and that FUR failed to make a convincing case for why they should not be allowed:
There is no express authority in ORS chapter 457 to create an urban renewal area with noncontiguous portions; on the other hand, there is no express prohibition on doing so, either. The statute is entirely silent on that question. In our view, resolving that question will require drawing inferences based largely on an analysis of context and legislative history and intent. Petitioners make no effort to provide any analysis of context, legislative history or intent, and we decline to attempt to resolve that question without assistance from the parties.

And LUBA found that the district does meet a couple of the criteria for blight:
The legislature adopted a broad definition of “blighted area,” and we have no authority to
construe the definition narrowly to exclude land that otherwise meets one or more of the
characteristics listed in the definition

In the 15-page decision, LUBA did agree with one of the six criticisms FUR raised: that the City failed to explain “how the building serves or benefits the urban renewal area.”

LUBA then sent the issue back to City Council to determine how to resolve that question. In its analysis, the agency focused on the lack of benefit to residents of the River District, while seeming to ignore the question of whether a new school in the over-crowded David Douglas district would benefit residents around the school.

Two members of FUR —former PDC Chairman Bob Ames and former PDC development director Larry Dully—say they have not yet read the LUBA decision. City Commissioner Randy Leonard, who championed the satellite district, along with former Commissioner Erik Sten and FUR's attorney Steve Pfeiffer were not immediately available for comment.

Jan. 6 update: Leonard says the city is considering its next move. Pfeiffer says he has not yet spoken to his clients about the LUBA decision.

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