The city’s attempt to more aggressively market some of their “excess” properties (empty lots and larger parcels) through a local real estate company draws protest from a wide variety of residents
The Great Depression (that’s the one in the 1930s and early 1940s) brought many tax foreclosures to the Astoria area, which in turn brought a good deal of land into the hands of Clatsop County. Starting in the late 1940s, after World War II, much of that land was sold to the City of Astoria for ridiculously small amounts of money (i.e. between one and ten dollars!). Since then, the city has been trying to sell this bounty of land, but hasn’t made it a priority, so that only when a potential buyer approached the city did it respond, and after many decades, the city was still left with many properties that it considered “excess to critical city need”, or “not associated with our duty to provide essential services or recreation opportunities to our citizens,” according to the city manager, Paul Benoit.
At the beginning of 2013, the Astoria City Council set a goal to remedy that situation. City staff went to work, hiring Mike Morgan, the mayor of Cannon Beach and a long-time consultant with the city, to lead the effort to set up a program to start selling off this property. From a total of over 1300 properties that the city owns, the team pared down the list to 37 properties, and developed a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a real estate company to act as the agent for the sale of these properties. They also proposed a plan to allow adjacent property owners to get first dibs on these properties, before listing them to the general public.
By August, Area Properties had been brought on as the agent, and the plan was approved by the council unanimously. Letters went out to adjacent property owners in October. Only then did they, and then after coverage of a subsequent city council meeting, most other local residents, find out about the program.
What’s For Sale
The initial maps of city-owned properties for sale, dated August 8, were available by request from city staff. They were black-and-white versions of the county tax lot maps, and were divided into four areas: Alderbrook, Uppertown, West End and South Slope. These maps included mostly relatively small lots, with one notable exception. Taking up almost a quarter of the Uppertown map was a combination of three contiguous lots that were labeled 38th to 40th, Lief Erikson to Land Reserve; Irving, 35th to 38th; and 900 Blk 36th. This area includes a system of trails, piles of logged blowdown, and towering evergreen trees. Nearby residents, and others shown the map, were amazed that this land was deemed buildable and was on the list.
Bernie Wood, a teacher at Clatsop Community College, was concerned not only about the larger parcel (Irving, 35th to 38th, from above) in back of his house on Irving Avenue in the Uppertown neighborhood, but also a much smaller lot that he had been using as part of his backyard. The smaller lot, which runs along 36th St. in back of four houses that front on Irving, is the kind of property that the city was highlighting in their presentations to the public in the early days of the project. Driveways, alleyways, land used as gardens and for garages and sheds – small lots that somehow the city never sold and many property owners didn’t even know wasn’t theirs. Wood and his neighbors were concerned that a developer might get a hold of this property, and combined with the larger property behind it, might build right up to their houses. One of the owners on the block has put in a bid of $4000 for the smaller property.
At the request of several residents, the city eventually provided aerial maps with the properties for sale marked on them, as well as updated tax lot maps. On the new maps, about 3/4s of the 38th to 40th, Lief Erikson to Land Reserve property was eliminated from the sale, evidently due to its being outside the city’s Urban Growth Boundary (UGB). At the November 18th city council meeting, a letter from Terrie Remington (a resident on Irving) was read by Bobbi Brice, and after further testimony from Wood, the mayor asked the council to remove the Irving, 35th to 38th parcel from the sale. The council agreed unanimously.
Jan and Vicki Faber were shocked when they received their notification letter. They, like other adjacent property owners, were given 4 days to bid on the property on the 2900 block between Harrison and Irving. As a result of Jan’s testimony at the October 21st city council meeting requesting more time to make their decision, the council decided to review the whole process and extend the decision time to 4 weeks.
A quick look at the aerial maps combined with zoning maps shows that most of the properties for sale under the city’s program are forested or wooded sections of Astoria that are zoned residential. Sales of these properties and subsequent development would have the potential to disrupt wildlife corridors and change the character of many areas of the city. The most affected areas would be Uppertown; along Irving Avenue from the eastern end to 18th Street; and the South Slope, especially at the end of Niagara and down 7th St.
As of this writing, bids are still being taken from adjacent property owners, and none of the properties for sale has been marketed to the general public.
The Opposition Mounts
Adjacent property owners weren’t the only ones who were surprised by the city’s property sales program. Once the program became generally known, the city council chambers were packed with folks who testified against the sales, and it became the talk of the town.
Confusion reigned at the November 4th council meeting, with several people demanding better documentation of the program before it could be allowed to continue. At the next council meeting on November 18th, the city provided aerial maps and a presentation to the audience on the background of the program and where the properties for sale were located.
Testimony at both November council meetings was overwhelmingly against the sales, for various reasons. Art Limbard, a geologist who lives in Warrenton but teaches ENCORE (Exploring New Concepts of Retirement Education; see encorelearn.org for more information) classes in Astoria, was very skeptical about the geological stability of much of the land under consideration, and cautioned against any sales of public land before further studies were done. Fred White, a retired landscaper who lives on Irving in the famous 1950s slide zone, also cautioned against selling property that was slide-prone.
Shel Cantor, a retired engineer who’s lived in Astoria for 10 ½ years, provided a good case for holding off on sales of property in the current market. He stressed that 2013 and 2014 would be the worst possible time to sell land, as the value is rock bottom, and likely to increase in the near future. If the city’s fiduciary responsibility is to get the best deal for our land, Cantor argued, then we should hold off with these sales for at least another year.
In a letter to Councilman Drew Herzig earlier this year which he updated after attending the November council meetings, Limbard expressed concern about the property for sale at the end of Niagara: “I call attention to city land to the west of 3rd off Niagara and Madison on the ‘south slope’ – land that currently is forested. To me, there are good reasons why this land has not been developed and is forested. The unstable slope conditions are vulnerable to the weight of buildings and roads and it appears that landslips have occurred in the area in the past.” He goes on to state: “In fact, there is evidence that many parts of Astoria are affected by naturally unstable slopes, made more hazardous by so-called development. Cutting into the base of slopes, adding weight to slopes with homes, other buildings, roads, etc., and ‘lubricating’ these slopes via watered lawns and disturbed drainage patterns compound the mechanisms of slope failure.”
Sue Skinner, a nurse practitioner at the Lower Columbia Clinic in Astoria and a longtime resident, criticized the city for not providing more information to the public about the sales much earlier in the process.
Several other residents testified at the two November city council meetings, citing various reasons for their opposition to the sales, including potential destruction of wildlife habitat, inability of some adjacent property owners to purchase city property at this time even if they wanted or needed that property, questions as to the necessity of the city selling property at this time, concerns over process, and worries over the future value of their property and character of the city.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Despite impassioned pleas and alternatives presented at the council meetings and via email, the council voted 4-1 (with Herzig dissenting) to continue the program as envisioned earlier in the year. The people had prevailed, noted Mayor Van Dusen, in removing some property from the original set, and giving adjacent property owners extra time to decide whether to make a bid on neighboring property. Herzig noted, however, that the public was obviously against the program, even in its modified form, and as a representative of the people, he could not in good faith vote for continuing it. (Herzig voted with the rest of the council throughout the year to approve the program.) Unlike some previous land use decisions by the Astoria City Council, where there was plenty of testimony on both sides of the issue, this decision saw only negative testimony by the public, and the council sticking to their guns regardless. The main reasons given for continuing on with the sales program were: decreasing water and sewer rates by attracting more people to the city; lessening the burden on city staff for maintenance of city property; and bringing in more money to city coffers, both for the capital improvement fund (from the sales) and the general operational fund (from property taxes).
This public land sale brings together several projects that the city has been working on in the last few years. Relatively uncontroversial was the one sale already achieved by the program – a house located on the South Slope that the city bought to settle a lawsuit by the previous owner after the house was flooded due to an error made during a water system repair. The city lost money overall on the deal, but saw the property go onto the tax rolls, with the new owner a prominent property management firm in the area.
A large wooded area at the western end of Niagara Avenue was the subject of a council meeting about a year ago, where the city proposed packaging the property – which had been platted many decades ago as a new subdivision but never sold and developed – with a local realtor for sale as “needed” single-family housing. That parcel is one of the larger ones in the current sale. Neighbors of the property have been vocally against selling it, fearing their property value and quality of life would both go down. So far, though, no nearby property owners have bid on that parcel, or any part of it.
However, there have been several written bids submitted to the city by Area Properties, working with adjacent landowners. The process is that each of these bids will be reviewed by the city council, with a public hearing also scheduled on each so that the public can weigh in. The first public hearing has been scheduled for December 16, at the next city council meeting, and will consider the following offers:
5300 Block of Alder Street, Alderbrook, 0.23 acres, James and Mary Huber, $19,000.
1st & W Grand, Uniontown, 0.23 acres, Robert Jacob, $7,200.
400 Block 3rd St, Uniontown, 0.11 acres, Lawrence & Carol Thomas, $15,000.
4600 Block Birch & Ash Sts, Alderbrook, 0.79 acres, Michael & Lorna Zametkin, $16,000.
4700 Block Ash St, Alderbrook, 0.41 acres, Susan Brookfield & Michael Cowan, $26,500.
1600 Block 5th St, South Slope, Lance & Katherine Freeman, $8,500.
600 Block Exchange St, McClure’s Addition, 0.11 acres, Roger Dorband & Patricia Barnes, $6,500.
After all bids from adjacent landowners have been considered, Area Properties will list the properties not already sold on the Multiple Listing Service (MLS) so that the general public can bid on the properties in the usual way of real estate transactions. However, the council has directed that there will be no minimum bid for these properties, and potential buyers can pool resources to bid on any property, or any part of each one. The council will be the final arbiter of any multiple bids on a property, and any conditions on the sale.
The city has given mixed signals on whether the property sales program will continue after the final disposition of the initial 37 properties has been determined. There has also been no indication of how long this current program will continue. With a good portion of the large wooded lots throughout the UGB of the city already or potentially for sale through this program, local residents have formed a group called Friends of Astoria’s Natural Areas (see box), and are seeking ways to preserve what has become a treasured part of Astoria.
|Friends of Astoria’s Natural Areas (FANA)
Residents opposed to the sale of some of these properties, mainly due to the possible loss of natural areas in the city, are banding together to possibly purchase some of this property, influence the sales in a way beneficial to the maintenance of the natural areas, provide volunteer labor for maintenance, and also work with the city on planning approaches that might keep these properties public. Their first meeting will be held at the KALA Gallery at 1017 Marine Drive on Tuesday, December 17 at 7 pm.
In an open letter to the Astoria City Council, Cantor states, “The procedures for this sales program can be modified to comply with your fiduciary responsibilities, encourage good-neighbor purchases, and preclude the sell off of city-owned land to developers, speculators, and mini-timber-barons.”
Summing up the feelings of many, Skinner states in an email to local residents, “There are so many reasons why preservation of open space is crucial – the water(shed), the air, the stability of hillsides, the preservation of a little bit of wetland… We are sitting on riches beyond gold here. Please attend the Astoria City Council meetings, find out what’s going on, and speak out.”
City Manager Benoit agrees. In a recent op-ed, he concluded, “…stay engaged and keep a close watch. An informed and involved public, advising and working together with elected leadership and city staff, is a key to keeping the community on a positive course.”