School district fights for rural building sites

By RAELYNN RICARTE

News staff writer

March 7, 2007

School District Superintendent Pat Evenson-Brady insists that “unique” circumstances in Hood River County should allow state rules to bend for local construction needs.

She told legislators at a recent hearing in Salem that 77 percent of the county’s land base lies either in public ownership or is designated solely for farm use. So, the price of developable properties has become unaffordable.

For example, Evenson-Brady said the cost of parcels zoned for residential use within the Urban Growth Boundary is about $1 million per acre. Conversely, land that is located in an outlying area could be purchased for $130,000 per acre.

“Who’s going to pay that big difference? Are schools as important as agricultural land or not?” asked Evenson-Brady.

At issue is an existing law that prohibits the building of churches or schools on farmland except within three miles of an Urban Growth Boundary. That rule was created with the intent that property adjacent to a city boundary would accommodate growth so that natural resources were protected on rural parcels.

In addition, Goal 11 of the state’s planning guidelines prohibits the extension of sewer lines outside the UGB. It also restricts the installation of a new water line if it is going to bring more growth to nearby agricultural lands.

Evenson-Brady said the district is even restricted from building a facility on 21 acres of land that it already owns in Odell. That property is designated for agricultural use even though there has been no farming within its borders since the 1950s.

“There are no other school districts that are in this situation,” she said. “The bottom line is that we are unique or we’re not unique. If we are then there ought to be a twist in the rules for us. If not, there needs to be some other kind of a legislative fix.”

Evenson-Brady believes the state legislature should approve House Bill 2465 to remedy the situation. Instead, she has been told by some officials that the district can just condemn private property to meet its expansion needs. But Evenson-Brady said that bureaucratic move is unlikely to sit well with taxpayers.

“We have to sell a bond issue to voters and we think it is a deal breaker to do that by taking someone else’s land,” she said.

Evenson-Brady said it has been frustrating to hear some of the testimony in opposition to the bill that could remedy the situation. She doesn’t agree with dissenters that every school district in Oregon is faced with the same circumstances. So, land use regulations should either be changed uniformly or not at all.

She said that was pretty much the same message delivered last Friday by Lane Shetterly, director of the Department of Land Conservation and Development.

Shetterly visited Hood River on March 2 to meet with Evenson-Brady and other county officials. He wanted to discuss other options after opposing HB 2465. The legislation was brought forward by Rep. Patti Smith, R-Corbett, and Sen. Rick Metsger, D-Welches, but has yet to make it out of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

“We were told (by Shetterly) in essence that the rules are the rules and, oh by the way, the rules are the rules,” said Evenson-Brady.

Shetterly was unable to be reached for comment.

Smith said HB 2465 was drafted specifically to address Hood River County’s need because it was the only school district to ask for help. She agrees with Evenson-Brady that the local case qualifies to be considered on its own merits.

“I give kudos to the school district for stepping up to the plate and being a poster child for this discussion,” said Smith. “This is another example of how we need more flexibility in the state land use system.”

Metsger said HB 2465 might not be the only way to address the local school district’s need. He said there was at least one large tract of rural land in the county that could be folded into the UGB. He said that process could be accomplished without an undue amount of bureaucratic red tape. And taxpayer expenses to install infrastructure would be lower since sewer and water lines would be located nearby.

“I just want to encourage the school district to work with the city now and explore that option,” he said.

Evenson-Brady said all possible avenues for the district to acquire more land will be pursued — but cost is going to be the deciding factor on any purchase.

She asked Metsger and Smith to address the issue after the district found more than 25 acres of available farm land within three to four blocks of Westside Elementary School. Evenson-Brady said the $70,000 per acre cost would double or triple if the property were located right next to the Hood River city limits.

Meanwhile, as the debate waxes on in Salem, she said the price of property in Hood River County is steadily rising. Since the state typically requires 97 percent of construction costs to be borne by local property taxes, Evenson-Brady said there should be more consideration given to the price that they will have to pay.

Meanwhile, she said many students are relegated to using 14 modular classrooms for studies. The district is expected to grow about 30 percent within the next eight years, raising the current student population of 4,000 to 6,200.

If a Portland State University study holds true, Evenson-Brady said 53 more classrooms will be needed at many of the nine area schools to accommodate that growth.

“We have to do this now. The price of property is not going to get any cheaper and alternative sites are not going to become miraculously available in the immediate future,” agreed Smith.

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