Wal-Mart move looms on county

Hood River County Commissioner Carol York declared Nov. 19 that a pending Wal-Mart building application constituted an economic emergency.

She moved unsuccessfully to enact a temporary ordinance that would limit the size of commercial stores within the county to 50,000 square feet for the next 61 days.

During that time period, York said officials would have the opportunity to review the "big box" restrictions recently enacted by the city. Under a formal agreement made in 1997, the county is slated to adopt a compatible plan within the next few months.

"I think we have an obligation to be consistent with city requirements," said York.

She made the motion, which died because it was not seconded, after receiving confirmation at Monday's meeting from Scott Franklin, Wal-Mart representative, that a formal application was going to be filed in the immediate future. If that plan is submitted before the county has its building size restrictions in place, Wal-Mart will have a "grandfathered" right to build a 185,000 square foot retail store on a little more than 16 acres at the junction of Frankton and Country Club Roads.

"What we would ask is that Wal-Mart not be treated any different than any other applicant coming through the county," said Franklin.

York joined the outcry by almost 100 members of the Citizens for Responsible Growth who crowded the third-floor courtroom on Nov. 19 to outline the devastating effects that a super center would have on smaller Hood River businesses and the rural character of the community.

Kathy Watson, spokesperson for the group, said the county's Home Rule Charter allowed passage of an emergency ordinance; an emergency is defined by the dictionary as a sudden and unexpected occurrence which brought a long-term negative consequence.

"We argue that massive commercial development, now or in the future, on any county commercial land, does indeed violate the town's small-town character and detracts from quality of life. And most importantly, does nothing to increase the number of family-wage jobs," read Watson from her written testimony.

However, Will Carey, county land-use attorney, said that instituting an emergency land-use decision without following due process could open the county for legal challenges. He said under Measure 56, passed by the Legislature in 1997, property owners affected by zoning changes had to be given at least a 20 day notification and an opportunity for comment. He said that law was intended to stop land-use changes from being railroaded through the system.

In addition, Carey said state law and county administrative policy mandated that land use changes be reviewed first by the planning commission. He said proper protocol was to have that expert body bring a recommendation before the county board for its consideration. To not follow that process could also create legal problems, according to Carey.

"It's a dilemma, I can see certainly the argument for what's being proposed but I also have concerns over what's being proposed," he said. "I think from a purely legal standpoint that we're compelled to give that notice."

For several minutes before York made her motion, the process to legally fast-track either an emergency ordinance or the standard hearing process for building size limitations was being worked out between the board and staffers.

When her proposal died that discussion resumed and the county board scheduled a special meeting for 4 p.m. today in the second floor conference room. At that forum, David Meriwether, county administrator, will present possible timelines to either adopt an emergency interim ordinance or move forward on the permanent "big box" code.

Meanwhile, to prepare for either course of action, Planning Director Michael Benedict mailed out notices today for an upcoming hearing (time and date not available at press time on Tuesday) to property holders in the area proposed for the Wal Mart structure.

York and the citizens group said their intent was not to specifically target Wal-Mart, but Carey said that without addressing that particular application it would be difficult to justify emergency action or fast tracking of the commercial building size code.

Last week the Hood River City Council nixed the idea of taking immediate steps to annex the Frankton/Country Club property which lies within its urban growth area. Once incorporated into the city limits, it would be subject to the municipality's new building size limitations and stronger design codes.

"I certainly don't want to see this as a way to block Wal-Mart, I think it it's more of a way to have an ordinance set in place in which a development occur under our standards as opposed to no standards," said Cindy Walbridge, city planning director, at the Nov. 13 council meeting.

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