The Philomath Planning Commission at an Aug. 26 meeting denied on a 3-2 vote a master plan overlay for a proposed development featuring a 175-space recreational vehicle park, industrial flex space and storage facilities.
The commission based its findings for denial on the development not meeting goals as outlined in the city’s comprehensive plan — specifically for not providing sufficient jobs as part of an industrial-zoned project and because the large scope of the RV park creates questions about what could be interpreted as substandard housing.
The motion for denial received yes votes from Joseph Sullivan, Steve Boggs and Peggy Yoder and no votes from Gary Conner and Lori Gibbs. The other two commissioners — Jeannine Gay and David Stein — were not in attendance.
Following the vote, developer Scott Lepman said his team would regroup and decide what to do next.
“We’re going to evaluate our options but we appreciate the thoughtful comment,” Lepman said after the meeting. “We’re disappointed because we think these are great projects and are an asset to the community.”
Lepman could choose to appeal the decision to the City Council or withdraw the application and resubmit a revised proposal.
Associate planner Patrick Depa said through the city staff report that the applicant, with certain conditions of approval, had met or exceeded all of the criteria required. Depa was not able to attend the meeting.
The 2-1/2-hour discussion went up and down several avenues with a lot of time spent on possible conditions of approval. In particular, Yoder had questions on several items mentioned in Lepman’s rebuttal to comments but not included in the city’s list of conditions. The range of issues brought up by Yoder covered several areas, although much of the discussion involved wetlands management.
The meeting took a turn when Sullivan introduced his thoughts on the topics of substandard housing and lack of job creation on industrial-zoned property.
“When I look at our comprehensive plan … I see some conflicting provisions because on the one hand, we’re supposed to promote tourism and on the other hand, we’re not supposed to promote substandard housing,” Sullivan said. “The only way I can make sense of these two is to say, well, if there was a restriction saying that this was to be built only to cater to short-term residents, then we would be hitting both goals. But if we approve it as presented at face value, it explicitly states 70 percent of the people are there for long term.”
In his rebuttal to comments submitted by the public either through one of two July public hearings or through written statements, Lepman said that on average, 70 percent of his Blue Ox RV Park occupants stay on a month-to-month basis. Of those, the average stay in the Albany park is 2.25 years, although Lepman added that the RVs come and go for various reasons while continuing to pay for their monthly rented space.
Lepman offered up the percentages based on an assumption that those profiles from the Blue Ox would be similar at the proposed Philomath park. Sullivan said he considers the month-to-month occupants who are among those 70 percent to be a “significant problem.”
“It seems to me that an RV park, if used as a permanent residence, is substandard housing; it’s kind of smaller and doesn’t have access to the same sorts of facilities that a normal house would,” Sullivan said. “The people that live in temporary housing can pull up and leave in a moment’s notice and so their investment in the community and the kind of lifestyle that they give and get are diminished.”
At Lepman’s Albany park, 28 percent of the month-to-month residents cited work as the reason for the long-term stay. Another 19 percent were retirees, 18 percent said rent was too high where they had been living, 6 percent were in between selling houses, 6 percent had recently become single and 5 percent wanted to be close to family. There were seven other reasons cited, each involving less than 5 percent of those occupants.
Conner had a different interpretation of the specific goal in the comprehensive plan referred to by Sullivan, saying that he believes the most that can be done is to manage the zoning and rules to encourage certain things and discourage others.
“In this case, it being an RV park, it’s not really a housing facility, although people use it that way, and it’s a private, commercial development, it’s personal rights,” Conner said. “If someone owns an RV and they want to live in it, they can. I don’t see that our city code is giving us a mandate to govern and to dictate where someone’s allowed to live for how long provided it means certain standards.
“I understand your issues,” he added, “but I also want people to be free to do what they want to do as long as it doesn’t cause problems.”
Said Sullivan, “We do have an obligation to our comprehensive plan to only build things that are keeping within our goals.”
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Gibbs didn’t agree with the substandard housing reference.
“I’ve known some people that have lived for quite a while in an RV and I don’t think they would say that they lived in a bad situation,” Gibbs said. “They (Lepman) have a goal to not have any older (RVs) than 2005 … I don’t necessarily feel like it has to be considered substandard.”
City Manager Chris Workman said he believed that the substandard housing finding would be difficult to make an argument for because the RV park would be in an industrial zone, which is permitted under city code. As such, he said an RV park is seen as a business or industry, not housing.
“I would just caution looking at housing requirements and housing goals when we’re looking at an industrial site,” Workman said. “I just think that would be problematic for the city if that’s what a decision was based on.”
In addition to Sullivan, Boggs expressed reservations about the size of the RV park although he admitted he was conflicted based on various points.
“If that RV space was half the size of it, I would probably say that’s the best thing ever,” Boggs said, a comment that drew agreement from Sullivan.
Sullivan said the size of the park should be limited while promoting tourism, saying, “We need a place for tourists to stay, but we don’t need a city.”
As far as the issue involving lack of job creation, Sullivan also referred to the city’s primary land-use document and its goals.
“The way that I’m looking at it is the goal of the industrial land is to create jobs but RV parks are a permitted use, so there’s kind of a question there,” Sullivan said. “At what point do you say, well that’s too much RV park … it’s kind of going off the rails with the intended use?”
Sullivan later added, “I just picture myself driving past year after year for the next 10 years, next 20 years and seeing all these boats sitting out there and thinking what have I done?”
One of the proposed uses for the storage area includes RVs and boats.
As far employees, Lepman said the RV park would have five or six workers with management living onsite.
“I think Commissioner Sullivan is dead on — there are conflicting issues within that comprehensive plan,” Workman said. “The two that he stated in there are valid, it’s just a matter of do they outweigh the benefits that are also listed in the comprehensive plan that this development meets in other aspects?”
Amy Cook, the deputy city attorney, pointed out another issue.
“Under the municipal code, there is a provision that prohibits these recreational vehicles for more than 10 days in a 30-day period unless it’s in a legally-permitted campground,” Cook said. “So if the application’s approved, then we need a determination about whether this is a campground or not. Campground is not defined in the code, so that’s a determination that the planning commission needs to make — definitely if the application is approved.”
Sullivan said the Lepman application was put together well, “but using a big chunk of industrial lands to store boats on does not create jobs and using another big chunk of industrial land for temporary shelter for people who can’t afford anything better, I really only like the part that is the mixed-use facility.”
The commissioner moved two other applications forward on 4-1 votes — to allow for observation decks to encroach into the Newton Creek Riparian Corridor and the approval of a 0.3% variance to the maximum allowed lot coverage. However, with the master plan denial, the other two decisions don't carry much weight unless a reversal occurs on appeal.
The Philomath City Council’s next meeting is scheduled for Sept. 9.