Owners of property in the Timberhill area have requested that the city of Corvallis reimburse them for more than $100,000 in legal fees and other costs associated with an effort to challenge city rulings in Benton County Circuit Court.
GPA 1 and Forest Heights own more than 200 acres of property north of the intersection of Kings Boulevard and Walnut Boulevard. The landowners have been seeking to develop the property since purchasing it in 2012 and on March 23 won the backing of the state Land Conservation and Development Commission, which ordered the city to remove a planned development overlay from the property.
Removing the planned development overlay would make it easier for the property owners to build on the acreage, which constitutes the largest chunk of undeveloped land zoned for residential use inside the Corvallis city limits. The possibility of development also has raised enough concerns among neighbors that they formed the Northwest Alliance of Corvallis to represent their interests.
Benton County Circuit Court Judge Locke Williams confirmed the validity of the state enforcement order Nov. 27 and directed the city to respond by Monday. Williams also said that the property owners could petition for “reasonable attorney fees, costs and disbursements.”
In documents forwarded to the Gazette-Times, GPA 1 and Forest Heights have requested $107,032.95, with the bulk of the petition — $106,430.95 — consisting of legal fees for six attorneys, plus the work of law clerks. Rates of the attorneys involved ranged between $250 and $520 per hour.
The fees only cover the Benton County case. GPA 1 and Forest Heights claim in the documents that they have spent more than $1 million in fees and processing expenses since acquiring the Timberhill property. Applications and appeals also have been reviewed by the state Land Use Board of Appeals, the LCDC and the state Court of Appeals.
GPA 1 and Forest Heights also have raised questions about the formal findings the City Council will consider at its Monday meeting as it seeks to remove the overlay.
A letter from Eugene-based land use attorney Bill Kloos to Corvallis City Attorney Jim Brewer notes that “if the city decision is entered as drafted, my client will immediately return to Circuit Court to enforce the court’s order and judgment.”
Brewer, meanwhile, indicated that the city is willing to work with the landowners on the issue.
“While the decision is the City Council’s,” Brewer said, “staff has reviewed GPA 1’s concerns with the findings and does not see a problem with adopting the form of order GPA 1 has presented.”
The issue of attorney’s fees might not be resolved so quickly.
“The city will need to evaluate the petition and statement of fees and decide on how to respond,” Brewer said.
The city of Corvallis meanwhile, has spent $77,400 on legal fees in the series of Timberhill cases that began in 2014, according to data provided to the Gazette-Times by City Manager Mark Shepard.
Brewer’s office has two sources of income from the city. Routine legal work, assisting with staff reports, representing the city at Municipal Court and being present at City Council and Planning Commission meetings all is covered by the city’s annual retainer of $296,280. Brewer’s office bills the city at a rate of $140 per hour for work outside the retainer such as the Timberhill appeals. Thus, Brewer’s office has spent more than 550 hours working on the appeals.
Retainer work is funded by the city’s general fund budget. Shepard said the city’s major and council budget includes $30,000 to spend on outside legal work, with the city manager’s budget including an additional $10,000 for litigation work. Thus, the city has $40,000 available for spending each year on such appeals.