Rogue Valley officials want state lawmakers to realize that one size does not always fit all. Too often, they say, the state Legislature hinders local solutions to area problems.
The latest issue &
a dying affordable housing bill sponsored by state Rep. Peter Buckley &
is just one example in what city councilors, former mayors and local policymakers describe as a perpetual struggle against decision-makers in Salem.
The proposal by Buckley, an Ashland Democrat, would have lifted the statewide ban on so-called "inclusionary zoning," which would have allowed cities to force residential developers build affordable housing as a part of their projects.
Ashland City Councilor Cate Hartzell said at the expense of local cities House Bill 3284 stalled in the face of strong opposition from well-heeled lobbyists, namely the Oregon Home Builders Association and the Oregon Association of Realtors.
"They are akin to the National Rifle Association on the federal level," Hartzell said of the influence that the two trade groups wield in Salem. "Unfortunately, they don't step forward with appropriate solutions."
At the very least, Hartzell said, cities should be able to consider enacting inclusionary zoning ordinances to, among other things, create affordable housing for both working-class families and for those who cannot afford market rates, even for a starter home.
"It's a standard tool used across the nation," Hartzell said of inclusionary zoning, "but somehow the building industry has convinced the Legislature that we can solve our affordable housing problems without the tools that other states use."
The lack of affordable housing in the region is an economic issue as much as it's a social one, said Ashland City Councilor Kate Jackson, the council's liaison to Southern Oregon Regional Economic Development Inc.
Local wages, Jackson said, do not allow many working families to buy a home, noting that in Ashland, in particular, "Houses are seen as investments rather than as homes."
Agreeing there is a shortage of affordable housing in the state, Jon Chandler, executive director of the Oregon Home Builders Association, told the House Committee on Consumer Protection it would be unfair to force developers to shoulder the burden of providing more affordable units, as he said Buckley's bill would do.
"It's a problem that all of us have to fix, not just the builders, not just the legislators," Chandler told lawmakers on April 13. "It's going to require some creativity and some hard work."
Hoping to bridge the rift between industry interests and affordable housing advocates, state Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, is coordinating a workgroup of community organizers, homebuilders, and state agencies to meet after the Legislature adjourns this summer and work toward a compromise bill that could be introduced in the next legislative session.
Brandon Goldman, housing program specialist for the city of Ashland, said to encourage developers to build affordable units, the city provides density bonuses and fee-wavers; and, for residential projects to be annexed into the city limits, developments must have within them 15-percent to 35-percent affordable housing units, he said.
"Communities across Oregon have different housing needs and each community should not be preempted by state law from examining any and all potential remedies to ensure that their residents have a place to call home and still have money remaining for necessities like food and health care," Goldman said.
While inclusionary zoning is not a panacea, Goldman said coupled with financial incentives to developers, it could be a useful tool for cities, not just Ashland.
"Inclusionary zoning works well in cities elsewhere," Goldman said. "We'd like to look at it to see if it is something we could try here"
Recently, local builder Archerd Dresner LLC took advantage of Ashland's incentive to developers that incorporate affordable housing into their projects.
Archerd Dresner, in exchange for voluntarily designating eight condominiums at its 32-unit Barclay Square development, qualified for a density waiver that allowed the Ashland-based company to build more units near Ashland Street. and Clay Creek Road. to help offset the cost of selling some of the units at below market rates.
Michael Cavallaro, executive director of the Rogue Valley Council of Governments, said to some extent the tension between state and local government is healthy, but warned the relationship can become dysfunctional relatively quickly.
"There is a bigger picture that the Legislature sees, but that sometimes gets in the way of allowing for local creativity to solve problems," said Cavallaro, whose organization represents 15 local governments in Jackson and Josephine counties.
City Councilor Russ Silbiger said when the state foists mandates on city governments, local officials are often kept from doing "what is in the best interest" of the cities they serve.
Silbiger points to legislation that would require cities of more than 10,000 people to fluoridate their municipal water supplies.
The bill, supported by the American Dental Association, would preempt an Ashland city ordinance enacted in November 2006 that prohibits adding fluoride, or any other substance that would act as medication or a health supplement, to the city's water supply.
The proposal has stalled in the House, amid criticism that the bill would amount to a power grab by the state Legislature. Similar proposals during the last three legislative sessions have stalled.
Silbiger said while personally he does not object to fluoridation, as two-thirds of the nation has the chemical added to its drinking water; he said the state should not require cities to fluoridate their municipal water supplies.
"This is our water system: we own it, we run it," he said. "It should be our decision if we want to fluoridate it not the state's decision."
If the Legislature approves House Bill 3099, Ashland City Councilor Eric Navickas said he would push the city to challenge the law in court.
"The state doesn't have the right to mandate medication for individuals," Navickas said. "I'd be willing to go to the mat over this issue and I hope others on the City Council would too."
To bolster their position, critics point to a 2006 report by the National Research Council and a subsequent warning by the American Dental Association against using fluoridated water to mix infant formula, as formula made with fluoridated water contains up to 250 times more fluoride than mother's milk.
"The state Legislature is catering to special interests here rather than allowing for home-rule for cities," he said, noting that fluoride is a byproduct of phosphate fertilizer manufacturing.
Councilor Alice Hardesty said cities and the state are in a perennial battle over local control.
She said while the Democrat-led Legislature is doing "good work" to boost public schools' funding and extend health care coverage to the uninsured lawmakers continue to stymie local efforts to address bread-and-butter issues.
"There certainly isn't a commitment in the Legislature to let municipalities decide for themselves," she said. "They are trying to force fluoride down our throats, they won't allow us to even consider inclusionary zoning, and they won't let us charge a real estate transfer tax."
She said a real estate transfer fee, charged when property is sold or transferred, is a way for cities to boost affordable housing stock.
In a resolution urging the state Legislature to repeal the ban on imposing real estate transfer fees, the City Council said in April 2003, that: "Cities must have the financial resources to provide the basic public services that our citizens and businesses depend on, including affordable housing, and that make our communities desirable places to live and work."
Andy Shaw, a lobbyist for the League of Oregon Cities, said city councils around the state are the best suited to chart their community's course.
"There are 242 cities in Oregon, and they have different circumstances and different needs," Shaw said, adding that this session there has been more discussions of limiting local control than in sessions past.
"And that is concerning," he said.
Jackson County Commissioner Jack Walker said, "This is the worse I've seen state government."
Walker, who has served on the county's executive board since 1995, said the issue of local control being preempted by the state goes far deeper than fluoridation or even taxation.
He says that the Democratic-controlled Legislature flouts the will of voters, as evidenced by a bill passed by the House on May 4 that would ask voters amend Measure 37, Oregon's landmark property-rights law.
"This is the most ridiculous, unconstitutional process I have ever seen," Walker said.
The proposal, outlined in House Bill 3540, would narrow the scope of the law in which landowners can seek government compensation if environmental restrictions have resulted in their property values being reduced.
In debate on the House Floor before the measure was approved 31-24 on a party line vote, Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, said that the bill is "being sold as a solution" but will only deliver "broken promises for Oregonians."
The law, approved by 61 percent of statewide voters in 2004, says that if the government decides not to compensate a claimant that they must wave the restriction and allow the development.
Among the changes that voters may decide to make if the state Senate approves the bill: a simplified track for some landowners to build a maximum of three houses on their property if they can prove that they lost property value because of land-use restrictions.
Additionally, Walker said, the state's restrictions on logging have taken a toll on rural communities, including those in Jackson County.
"All they want to do is put their hand out and ask for more taxes," Walker said of the Legislature. "Let's get creative to find ways to raise revenue."
A long history
Former Ashland Mayor Cathy Shaw said the dynamic between cities and the state is no different now than it was during the 12 years she led the city &
from 1989 through 2000 &
during which time Republicans had control in the Legislature.
"Then, the Legislature was unable to organize a sock drawer; yet, were telling local government what they should and shouldn't do," said Shaw, now a Democratic campaign strategist.
It is understandable, she said, why industry groups go to the state Legislature to limit local power: It is easier for them to wage a single war in Salem than fight dozens of battles around the state at the local level.
Take Ashland's five-percent prepared food and beverage tax, which went into effect in 1993. She said the Oregon Restaurant Association unsuccessfully lobbied the Legislature to limit local ability to impose such levies after voters approved the tax.
"I always thought that it was a bit presumptuous for the state to come along and try to undo what we did," Shaw said.
Under the law, 80 percent of the tax food and beverage tax receipts go to help finance the city's wastewater treatment plant; the remainder is earmarked for open space acquisition. Last year, the tax &
that expires on Dec. 31, 2010 &
funneled $1.85 million into city coffers.
Former Ashland Mayor Alan DeBoer, who served four years after Shaw left office, said for the most part legislators listen to the state's mayors and city councils. He sees a "good push and take" relationship between state and local government.
"But there is no shortage of lobbyists looking out after their own interests," said DeBoer, owner of Town and Country Chevrolet in Ashland.
He said whether a city chooses to fluoridate its water ought to be a decision made locally, adding that it is "absolutely insane" that legislators would even consider forcing cities to fluoridate their water, as they have in the last three legislative sessions.
"It's just not worth the argument every two years," DeBoer said. "What I want is the Legislature to get the budget done, look out for my safety and go home."
covers the state Legislature for the Daily Tidings. Reach him at email@example.com.
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