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How dense can we get?

When Gordon Root met with a group of nervous neighbors last September, he arrived in a pair of cowboy boots and matching bravado.

Root had swaggered in from Lake Oswego, the latest out-of-town developer to set his sights on a pretty piece of property along a stretch of Gales Creek near my parent’s house at the end of D Street in Forest Grove.

For some of the neighbors, this was an all-too-familiar get together. They were around back in 2005, when the first developer proposed wedging 100 single-family homes onto 10 acres that had been home to cows when my parents had moved in a year earlier.

They remembered how those first subdivision plans showed houses sitting where floodwaters regularly rise. Since then, they waded through the establishment of a more accurate high-water mark, endured a contentious adjustment of the urban growth boundary and the subsequent debate over zoning for the land brought inside.

They saw two previous proposals falter, but with demand for housing rising again, it was only a matter of time before someone else took a look at the steeply-sloped former cow pasture. This time it is Root, who formed Gales Creek Development LLC last year to take another run at breaking ground on the north side of the creek.

Of course, Root said he’d like to build larger lots, but those scoundrels at Metro, the regional government, impose density requirements on local planners and builders, so he had no choice but to squeeze more than 100 parcels onto that piece of land. At the same time, the neighbors were reminded that because the land was zoned for high density, Root could come in and put up apartment buildings with a simple staff review. No public comment. No public vote. Just a few formalities and the bulldozers would roll.

But Root wanted a “planned development,” which requires public hearings and at least one public vote. Root, however, wasn’t worried. After all, the plans he had penciled out were very similar to ones the city had approved a few years back. So, the neighbors could voice their opinions, but they really didn’t have a lot of leverage.

But on a Monday night in February, his predicted path took a twist.

Although Root had not yet submitted his application, the planning commission had invited his associates to brief them on what he had in mind.

After some discussions about street widths and sewer access, Tom Beck, the chair of the commission, stated something so obvious about this land that I was startled I’d never considered it in the nine years I’ve been pondering the fate of that pasture. The reason no one has liked most of the plans along Gales Creek is that, with one exception, developers have tried to put detached houses where apartments, duplexes or row-houses should go. The result is a design that looks completely out of place in Forest Grove, a maze of narrow streets with houses set six feet apart, leaving tiny wedges of unusable land designated as “pocket parks” even though you’d be hard pressed to get a swing set on them.

Beck changed that familiar, troubling image with a simple “what if.” What if Root included some multi-family housing? By adding duplexes, townhouses or even a small apartment complex, could Root create more space for bigger lots on the east end, allowing a transition from the existing properties along D Street and a park big enough for more than a single picnic table?

Instead of a subdivision that leaves neighbors and city officials unhappy, could he offer a mix of housing options and create a community that enhances Forest Grove’s reputation as the place where the city meets the country?

The answer was a resounding “no.”

Although there are plenty of examples of well-designed multi-family developments in the region, Root ignored the commissioners’ request to get creative, and instead plopped down more of the same: 106 single-family homes jammed so close together you can string a hammock between them.

It’s now clear that when Root told neighbors last fall that he could simply put up an apartment complex on the land, he was bluffing. He had no intention of including even a single duplex in his plans.

He’ll now find out if the planning commissioners were bluffing when they told him in February they didn’t like what they were seeing.

John Schrag, publisher of the News-Times and the Hillsboro Tribune, lives in Forest Grove.



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