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Following the passage of legislation that removed voter input from the annexation equation and with a court challenge caught up in the appeal process, the Philomath Planning Commission took on the task of reviewing city code that outlines requirements for applications.

The commissioners have been looking at proposed annexation criteria changes for the past couple of months through regular meetings and work sessions. But on April 15, they kicked the issue out to the citizens in an effort to collect feedback that might spark new thoughts.

Based on an estimate of people in and out of the room, it appears the open house attracted at least 30 individuals.

Rick Flacco, who regularly attends meetings and follows city issues, said he finds it encouraging that the planning commissioners are creating criteria and policies that reflect the voters’ desires.

“I think a lot of these changes to criteria and policy are things that have been discussed for a while and there seems to be more, I think, desire on the part of citizens to know what’s going on and make their opinions heard,” Flacco said. “It’s really nice to see the city and the planning commission listening to that feedback.”

Among the proposed criteria additions would be a requirement for applicants to illustrate the annexation’s “benefit to the city and community of Philomath.” The current standard only requires that any negative impacts be mitigated. As such, the proposed criteria elevates the standard from “does not harm” to “improves” the city.

David Stein, who chairs the planning commission, said Philomath would not be the only city with that sort of requirement in its criteria.

“Yeah, it’s sort of squishy but it’s still useful,” Stein said. “If somebody wants to put in a hog farm inside the city limits, one could argue that’s not a benefit to the city, even if they hire people.”

Planning Commissioner Gary Conner said he’s very concerned about the subjectivity of the phrase “benefit to the city.” However, he’s also seen that approach reflected in annexation criteria of other cities and believes it is an underlying concept that cannot be argued.

“How it would be used in practice to reject an annexation, I have no idea,” he said, “but I don’t object to some philosophical language in there just as guidance to people’s attitudes toward annexations.”

Can “benefit” be defined?

“I think that’s a really tough one, right?” Flacco said. “Because a benefit to the city could be simply increasing the tax base, which is what any development does anyway. So I think it would be nice to see a little bit more concrete definition given to that term.”

Still, Flacco finds no problems with the addition.

“It’s good to see that in there because it does reflect things that are going to be important to citizens, making sure something is a net benefit to the city,” Flacco said. “I think it’s a worthy goal.”

In a recent work session, planning commissioners looked at annexation criteria of three other Oregon cities — Ashland, Hood River and Eugene.

“Reading through those, they all kind of have the same approach and the same points they touched on, whether they were two pages long or eight pages long,” Conner said. “I don’t think we’re doing anything terribly different than anyone else and it’s some good improvements that will make things a little bit better.”

Conner said the criteria changes will provide more up-front information on any proposed projects.

“These annexation criteria are not going to swing the needle a long ways on the future development of Philomath,” Conner said. “That gets done at the comprehensive plan stage, but these criteria kinda make sure that the developers and those proposing the annexation are doing their due diligence up front like on environmental studies or impacts to public services right up front rather than waiting until somebody’s applying for a building permit.”

Conner believes the criteria changes would impact annexation applicants in different ways. For example, smaller applicants with only a couple of house lots won’t see much of an impact through the changes.

“But if somebody’s coming in with a big development with hundreds of houses or hundreds of apartments, it’s going to be a higher bar to jump to prove to everybody what’s going on and if there is going to be big impact in services,” Conner said. “Whether it’s schools or water or anything else, they’re going to be on the hook to accommodate those changes rather than putting that cost on the community that already exists.

“At least that’s the attempt,” he added. “We’ll see how it works out in practice but I think that’s a positive change without being too high of a hurdle for small or average developers and an appropriate hurdle for big developers.”

The annexation criteria review has been a lengthy process for those involved.

“To hash them all out takes a lot of time,” Stein said. “But everybody on the planning commission wants to make a difference and we want to have a really effective annexation code and development codes, so we’re working on it. And I’m sure there’ll be other changes.”

City Manager Chris Workman said all comments from the open house will be collected and submitted to the planning commission for review. The planning commission would ultimately come to an agreement on final changes and bump it up to the city council.

At that point in time, the city council would take a first look and Workman said “more than likely” would want to set up a public hearing. Following that process, language would be put into an ordinance for councilors to consider for approval.

Workman said the process will probably take several more months before any final decisions.

“There’s a lot that’s demanding the time of both the planning commission and city council right now so we’re still several months out from having anything final,” he said.

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