Sweet Home City Council discusses vacant buildings

Wastewater plant upgrades, railroad depot also on agenda

By Benny Westcott
Of The New Era

The May 10 Sweet Home City Council meeting featured discussions on potentially enforcing stricter vacant-building ordinances downtown, funding necessary wastewater treatment plant upgrades amidst inflation, and efforts to curtail speeders, among other things.

By a 5-2 vote, the council chose to schedule a future work session to discuss possible expansion of the city’s current vacant-building ordinances in greater detail. Mayor Greg Mahler and councilors Dave Trask, Susan Coleman, Diane Gerson, and Lisa Gourley all voted in favor. Councilors Angelita Sanchez and Dylan Richards opposed.

A current city ordinance stipulates that a vacant commercial building be registered with the city, along with contact information for someone responsible for providing the building needs to the city. The ordinance also requires basic maintenance.

“It’s more geared toward keeping problems from getting worse and buildings from deteriorating further, and making sure that they are secure,” Community and Economic Development Director Blair Larsen said of the ordinance. “It doesn’t necessarily promote the occupancy of that building,”

However, councilors at a previous meeting requested that staff explore other options for addressing the issue.

“There are a number of things that we could do, but they do have pretty far-reaching effects on the community and should be carefully considered,” Larsen said. “There’s a lot to think about, and it’s important to consider what our goals are when looking at any potential regulation, especially fees. Inevitably, there are unintended consequences, or regulations that could be put in place that are not as narrowly tailored toward the goal. The result of that, if it’s overly broad, is that you’d be harming the very people you’re trying to help. So, it’s important to have a very targeted program that really goes after what is really the problem in town, if possible.”

“If the goal is to have productively occupied commercial buildings, unfortunately it is unlikely that any increased regulation or fees will achieve that desired result,” he added. “The success of commercial spaces relies too much on demographics and the overall market, and solid commercial lessees are much more difficult to find than residential tenants. However, if the goal is to address appearances and encourage the sharing of information, then a carefully crafted program can be successful.”

Larsen explained the problem’s recent exacerbation.

“Commercial property has been in decline since even before the pandemic, due to an increase in e-commerce such as Amazon and a focus on large chains and big-box stores,” he said. “The pandemic has added to the difficulty of filling commercial spaces, with an increased number of people working from home rather than in commercial office space. The recent increase in inflation and blockages in the supply chain for building materials of all kinds and rising interest rates make the present a difficult time to ask property owners to renovate or sell their properties.”

Still, Larsen said most other Oregon cities charge at least a minimal vacant-building fee. For example, Veneta has an escalating fee for noncompliant buildings that have been abandoned, vacant or distressed. It increases $50 per year, up to a maximum of $750 annually. Happy Valley also has this fee, topping out at $550 annually for vacant/distressed properties. Larsen said that it may be worth considering other options before such a charge, like increasing enforcement of existing ordinances or making smaller changes in the city code.

He said the city could require well-lit display spaces and exterior lighting or make peeling paint and out-of-date business signs code violations.

“Those would have more of an effect on the visual appeal of downtown, while not necessarily penalizing a property owner for not being able to find a tenant,” he said.

He recommended enforcing illegal uses when an apparently vacant commercial building is being used for storage, which is not permitted in the city’s central commercial zone and requires a conditional use permit. The city hasn’t typically enforced that code violation because no one has complained, he explained.

Larsen noted that the city could add a lighting standard for commercial properties in the central commercial zone and require that storefronts be lit at night.

“That could improve security and make properties appear less vacant,” he said.

He said that boarded or papered-over windows make an area feel more vacant and dilapidated, and that the city could require that windows facing a public right-of-way be covered by attractive blinds or include a lit, interior display area. He added that the city could also amend the development code to require downtown buildings to maintain windows over a certain percentage of their frontage.

“This is a common way to have a standard that makes your downtown feel less like a prison and more like a place where you could window-shop,” he said.

He suggested that the city could partner with other community groups, such as SHOCASE or the Sweet Home School District, to display resident and student artwork in vacant buildings. He added that the city could require that old signs advertising defunct businesses be removed, which would help vacant buildings look more available.

According to Larsen, some vacant-building ordinances require property owners to prove property insurance coverage that ensures that the property is further protected from deterioration. Owners may be given adequate funding to make repairs after a qualifying claim. He added that some ordinances require that property owners submit a vacant building plan, which could include a schedule for maintenance, security and rehabilitation, as well as plans for bringing the property into conformance with code and marketing plans for its sale or lease.

“This is the No. 1 thing about economic development I hear about on Facebook, from people who come into our town, and from our citizenry,” said Gourley, who was in favor of the work session. “Kudos to those businesses that are trying hard to earn a living in our community and have stuck with us. We owe it to them to do our best job, and part of that is to examine this and make sure that all businesses are good players and doing the best they can in the best interest of our community.”

Richards opposed the session.

“I think we should just cut all of this and not do any of it,” he said. “I don’t think regulation’s going to help anything. With the economy, inflation, and everything that we have right now, why is taxing people more going to help? It seems like there’s some people that sit on this board that just think of everything to tax.”

Wastewater treatment plant

The council voted unanimously to move forward with previously approved engineering for an upgraded wastewater treatment plant, but with a reduced scope for the construction’s initial phase.

To keep the city from having to take out loans, the project’s reduced Phase 1 will be funded by the city’s already allocated $16.3 million, rather than costing $30.1 million as originally projected.

The city began the engineering process for an upgraded plant in 2018 after the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued an enforcement letter in June 2017 because the plant exceeded allowable total suspended solids and E. coli levels.

According to Finance Director Brandon Neish, issues with preliminary engineering and the COVID-19 pandemic have delayed the project, which was originally slated to begin construction in the fourth quarter of 2020, with substantial completion estimated for October 2022. He said the delays have made the projected construction start 24 months later than originally planned, with substantial completion estimated for March 2025.

He said that the original 2018 estimates set a project budget of $28.2 million. But now, due to “the effects of the pandemic and inflation driving construction costs upward,” the estimated cost is now nearly $55 million.

Existing funding set aside for the upgrades includes an already spent $2 million in lottery funds; $7 million in general fund proceeds from the state, which has an end date for spending of June 30, 2023; and $7.3 million in city funds. Additionally, DEQ can give up to $500,000 in principal forgiveness and Business Oregon can grant $750,000, provided that the city borrows that same amount, and $11.2 million in grant funding from USDA could be provided. Neish said that loans would need to provide the plant’s remaining funding of $26,729,241.

Neish said that city staff have been meeting with various funding agencies, including Oregon DEQ, USDA and Business Oregon, but thus far the overall takeaway is that grants are minimal. He added that the city is treating the Environmental Protection Agency’s $30,000,000 as a loan.

According to Neish, engineers from Eugene firm West Yost are saying that the upgraded plant will last a minimum of 20 years before additional reviews and potential changes.

“Major components of this plant will last longer than that. That’s a guarantee,” Neish said, citing concrete, piping, and electrical infrastructure. “But there are components of this that are only being built with a 20-year projected life span.”

On payments the city would have to make on a loan, Trask said, “How in the world are we going to get that kind of money? It just boggles my mind. It’s pretty amazing to me that we can’t get more help from the government.”

“The inflation part of this is what’s mind-boggling to me,” Mahler added. “The fact that it’s skyrocketing, as we know. But what I see, even from the private sector, is there are a lot of companies and suppliers that are gouging because of inflation. They are gouging tremendously, because they are taking advantage of the situation. I’ve seen that firsthand. I feel like not only us, but the people within the entire U.S. will not be able to sustain inflation continuing to go up. Something’s got to give. I feel that these costs are going to come down. Maybe not to the level that they used to be, but I think they will come down, because we can’t sustain it as a country.”

He firmly believed that the project’s cost would come down.

“I think it would be prudent that we move forward, not just stand still,” he said. “We have to keep moving forward with this. You can’t just stop and go home and not do anything. I think we need to see what we can do and keep plugging away and see what happens.”

“I don’t know how long we have to put [the WWTP upgrades] off, because [public works] has been trying their damnedest to make it last as long as we’ve made it last,” Sanchez said. “Seeing [the WWTP] with my own eyes was very enlightening and very shocking. I feel like we’re just hanging on by a thread. I know that the price is outrageous, and I’m really upset about inflation, but we definitely have to get something done, for the plant, the employees, the residents of the town, and certainly to satisfy DEQ.”

Sanchez said that she called Linn County Commissioner Will Tucker, State Representative Jami Cate and State Senator Fred Girod, to request Oregon State Senate District 6 candidate Cedric Hayden’s presence in Sweet Home.

“They are all in support of Sweet Home,” she said. “They are wanting to be included in the conversation with USDA, EPA and whoever we are requesting money from, to back us up and do whatever they can to help us with this cost. I don’t want to forget that there are people outside of the city that are wanting to stand behind us to make this happen for our residents.”

Railroad depot

The council voted unanimously to seek more information before deciding on the fate of a historic railroad depot on the Public Works Facility. In the meantime, city staff will work to determine if community members would want to take possession of and relocate it.

Originally located at the site of the current McDonald’s, the depot was used in the late 1930s and 1940s, when two spurs met there and ran southwest toward Holley. When the restaurant was built, the depot was moved to a point adjacent to Bi-Mart’s current location in the 2000 block of Main Street. During the store’s development about 10 years ago, council members and property owners gave several community members approval to move the depot to the current Public Works Facility at 1400 24th Avenue. Volunteers placed the depot on large timbers and pulled it to the facility’s northern end in 2013.

The depot currently sits on the access road that will service Linn County’s proposed RV fill/dump station as well as the Family Assistance and Resource Center’s proposed homeless facility.

Public Works Director Greg Springman said that the “significantly dilapidated” structure, which is exposed to wet conditions, would be in the way if it remains where it currently sits. He added that Public Works staff unsuccessfully attempted to pull it from the access easement area earlier this month.

“Due to severe rot of the timbers and substructure of the depot, staff determined that significant damage would occur if they continued,” he said, adding that the depot would need to be lifted and secured for the placement of new timber skids, then dragged out of the way of the access road. He said that such an effort would cost a significant amount, one for which there were currently no city funds.

“I personally think we probably need to look and see if we have community members interested in preserving or supporting [the depot], because it is a historical building for our community,” Gourley said. “We don’t have very many of them.”

“All kinds of things could happen with that building,” she added, suggesting a train stop or coffee shop.

In other business:

— According to Sweet Home Police Department Captain Jason Ogden, the two most significant speed-related challenges his agency faces are along Main Street, where construction is taking place, and the 900 block of Mountain View Road.

He added that people were still adjusting to the reduced speed in the Main Street zone.

“After years of this being at 45 miles per hour, suddenly going down to 35 is a real challenge,” he said. “It takes a while for people to get used to that.”

Regarding Mountain View Road, he said, “People have a tendency to kind of get on it there. We’ve dedicated time and officers to traffic enforcement there, and we’ve had some pretty good results. People are slowing down, are very apologetic when we stop them and thankful for warnings. We’re going to continue to focus our efforts there and try to get that speed down.”

The department collects data from six radar signs. Four are on Main Street while two are often moved to other areas of concern. Volunteers visit these areas once or twice a week to manually collect data from vehicles. This data, Police Chief Jeff Lynn said, includes the speed at which 85% of drivers travel, a figure often used by traffic engineers to set speed limits, It also includes median speed and the percentage of drivers traveling more than six miles per hour over the limit.

“It comes down to trying to be as efficient as possible with the resources we have,” Lynn said. “We are really trying to focus on being a data driven response model, specifically for the speeding aspects in our community.”

After considering data points, Lynn said, the department works to determine where to put resources to impact traffic through traffic stops, visibility or citations.

— Sweet Home Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center Director Melody Reese presented the chamber’s triannual report to the council, which overviews activity from January to April.

In that time frame, the chamber reported 164 visits, 65.9% of which were business-related while 34.1% were tourism-related. Some 34.1% of the 77 calls the chamber received had to do with tourism, while 65.9% were business-related.

Reese said that several people purchased Sweet Home postcards to send to different states in order to fulfill class assignments, where relatives sought correspondence from different places.

The chamber’s top-viewed web pages over the last 90 days were “Hiking and Trails” (more than 20%), “Sweet Home Recreation” (12.8%), “Fishing in Sweet Home” (12.7%), “Rock Hounding” (11.25%) and “Sportsman’s Holiday” (10.6%).

Reese mentioned that the chamber sent tourism packets to Pendleton, Monmouth, Stayton, Joseph, Newberg and Condon. Its main source of first-quarter advertising was a monthly newsletter distributed to about 1,400 people per month.

The chamber recently added a U.S. map to its visitor center, as well as pins, that summer visitors can place pins on their towns. “It will be a really fun, interactive way to get to know our visitors,” Reese said.

She also noted that the chamber added two new tiers of membership last year, Elite Member and Premier Partner. This year the Wendi Melcher Team-Cadwell Realty Group and Ridgeway Health joined the three previously existing Elite Members.

Reese has also been pushing to involve the chamber with the city’s youth.

“We’ve asked ourselves how we can get more connected with our schools,” she said, noting that the Cut the Gut event supports the high school’s metal fabrication program. “We’re really working to make that connection and bridge the gap between the business community and the future talent that’s going to be graduating soon.”

— Mahler proclaimed May 2022 as Mental Health Month in Sweet Home.

“Mental health is essential to everyone’s overall health and well-being,” he said. “All Americans experience times of difficulty and stress in their lives. Mental health conditions are real and prevalent in our nation.”

“Promotion and prevention are effective ways to reduce the burden of mental health conditions,” he continued. “There is a strong body of research that supports user-friendly tools that all Americans can access to better handle challenges and protect their health and well-being. With effective treatment, individuals with mental health conditions can recover and lead full, productive lives.”

— The council voted unanimously to post a solicitation for water main replacement for Ninth Avenue between Cedar Street and Oak Terrace, Grape and Catalpa street off of Ninth, Alder Street from South Hills Trail to Ninth, Eighth Avenue from Alder Street to Cedar Street, and Birch Street. The work includes the replacement of waterlines and services, added fire hydrants and street restoration overlay and corner ramp replacements.

This block of Alder Street and the southern end of Eighth Avenue are outside of city limits. Engineering Technician Trish Rice said that city staff has long desired to annex the remainder of Eighth Avenue and Alder, reaching out repeatedly to Linn County to little response.

While staff recommended that city funds not be used to overlay county roads, Rice said that if the roads are annexed in time, the city would like to include them in this project. Therefore, the street overlay for the county roads were estimated separately as an additive alternative to the base bid.

Civil West Engineering Services’ estimate is $1,024,320 for the base bid, or $1,056,270 with the additive alternate.

The project would be funded using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, as council last year directed city staff to allocate $1 million of those funds to replace small-diameter water mains.

“The project is presented as Schedule A and Schedule B so that if the bid price exceeds our available budget, we can remove a schedule; but if the bids come in below the estimate then we can make the most efficient use of the funds,” Rice said.

A mandatory pre-bid meeting will be held May 25 prior to bid closing on June 8. Construction is anticipated to begin in July.

— The council unanimously voted for the temporary closure of certain streets for the July 9 Sportsman’s Holiday Parade, as requested by the Sweet Home Chamber of Commerce.

This will close and block vehicle traffic and parking from 7 a.m. to noon that day at 10th and 22nd Avenues from Long to Main streets and Long Street from 10th to 22nd avenues. Also, no parking will be allowed on the west side of 22nd Avenue from Long Street to Mountain View Road.

— The council unanimously approved a zone change application submitted by Eric Lund that requested a change from the commercial highway zone to the industrial zone for an area consisting of approximately 114,690 square feet (2.62 acres) north of Main Street and east of 24th Avenue, and a first reading of an ordinance amending the city’s official zoning map was conducted.

Lund plans to build 600 self-storage units and canopied RV and boat parking on the property, which would have an access driveway off of 24th Avenue. The facility would be gated with 24-hour access.