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Philomath City Hall (copy)

If you drive to or from the Willamette Valley through Philomath and Corvallis you probably asked yourself, What's happening to our community?

Since Gov. Kate Brown signed Senate Bill 1573 in 2016, cities are mandated to annex land in their urban growth boundaries by city ordinances rather than a vote of the people. Citizens, by referendum, changed their city charters to allow votes on annexation and now more than 30 cities have lost their ability to vote on growth and all the issues that come with it. Thank you, Gov. Brown, for silencing our voices. The count is more than 700,000 citizens!

Citizens in these home rule municipalities have looked to their locally elected officials for relief from this new unfunded mandate from Salem. Growth-mandated infrastructure is expensive. The list includes traffic congestion, new water plants, sewage plants, fire stations, school facilities, law enforcement, jails, libraries, parks and so forth.

This brings us to the city of Philomath. Confronted with SB 1573's new state mandates, city government initially sided with its citizens and Philomath’s charter under Oregon's home rule provisions spelled out by Oregon’s Constitution since 1906. On Jan. 29, the mayor and council held an executive session behind closed doors (no public allowed) and went back on their word to the community and changed the city’s annexation policy. People lost their annexation vote and the City Council, by ordinance, will make all future annexation decisions.

Now, the people of Philomath no longer have their voice or vote heard on critical infrastructure, quality of life questions, and other agendas.

Not surprisingly, the floodgates flew open, and the city’s new development mantra is “come one come all.” Approximately 600 housing units (apartment & subdivision complexes) are in the pipeline or already approved with the city currently considering 100 more.

On May 21, the city held a public hearing to Annex 0.92 acres, consider a comprehensive plan a zoning map amendment, rezoned a former lumber mill site from industrial to R3 high density residential for a 166-lot subdivision, signed a development agreement and voted 6-1 to approve this agenda.

Many citizens had absolutely no knowledge of this development, learning of it at the 11th hour through social media. It appears this had been quietly worked on for some time. The city reassured people they did what the law required. Public testimony evidence entered into the record over environmental and public safety issues included “Ghosts In The Ground” by former Gazette-Times reporter John Butterworth. The city has been repeatedly asked, to no avail, to produce environmental documents concerning the former mill site. The writer of this editorial finally filed a freedom of information records request on June 9. What the reports confirmed was a major incident and letter of noncompliance from the Department of Environmental Quality threatening a $7,500-a-day fine if not mitigated.

At the June 25 council hearing, when I shared both environmental reports with the mayor and council, they denied ever seeing the documents. The city and DEQ couldn't find any evidence the site had ever been cleaned up. When the city was confronted with this information, the reply was “it wasn't relevant and not part of Philomath applicable criteria for the development.” Tell that to somebody who gets sick. Surely the Legislature can fix this DEQ issue and problem.

Citizens should expect more of their elected officials. When voters in November choose a new mayor and council, they might ask themselves if the candidates have the right criteria to represent them. After all, their decisions will affect our community and lives for a long time!

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Jeff Lamb of Philomath is vice chairman of Oregon Communities for a Voice in Annexation.