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Multnomah County tries to define Sauvie Island 'character'

Strong attendance at open house, public meeting


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - Multnomah County senior planner Adam Barber, right, speaks with attendees from the public in the Sauvie Island Academy gymnasium at an open house Monday, Jan. 6, to discuss the county's plans to update the rural area plan for Sauvie Island and the Multnomah Channel.Much of the discussion at the Multnomah County Planning Commission’s first meeting in a planned series of three at the Sauvie Island Academy Monday, Jan. 6, was consumed by commissioners, staff and members of the public’s attempts to define an attribute many have said is essential to Sauvie Island.

Planners working on an update to the Sauvie Island/Multnomah Channel Rural Area Plan — the part of Multnomah County’s comprehensive plan dealing with the two-thirds of Sauvie Island that falls within Oregon’s most populous county — said they have often heard people talk about the island’s “rural character.”

“It seemed like universally ... there was a desire to preserve the rural character,” senior planner Adam Barber told the commission.

Multnomah County developed a short, photograph-based survey, which members of the public can take online until Jan. 17 at the SIMC project website, to help collect feedback on what constitutes Sauvie Island’s “rural character.” Barber and his fellow county planners also asked the planning commissioners and the dozens of people who attended the meeting in the school gymnasium for their thoughts on how to define the term.

Planning Commissioner Paul DeBoni said he thought of rural character as the opposite of what makes up an urban environment, a statement with which several other commissioners agreed.

“Rural is more of what it isn’t than it is,” DeBoni said.

Commissioners Bill Kabeiseman and John Rettig discussed whether “rural” can be defined by an absence of human influence, with Kabeiseman suggesting that rural character is dictated by the natural landscape instead of by how humans use it.

“Rural is not a wilderness,” Rettig responded. “It has to be somewhere in between those two [wilderness and urban environments].”

A wireless microphone was passed among members of the audience so that they could give their take. Few declined the opportunity to speak.

Some attendees described rural character as being about attitude and human relationships.

Linda Wisner, president of the Sauvie Island Community Association, agreed with Kabeiseman’s suggestion that “the land is the experience,” but added, “It is a rural community. It’s a group of people unlike any urban experience I’ve ever had. And my neighbor may live 10 miles from me, but they — that person is still my neighbor.”

Others talked about the island’s farms and open spaces as being essential to its rural character.

“It’s big wide open spaces, and it’s people taking care of the land that is entrusted to them,” said Kari Egger, who co-owns the Pumpkin Patch on Sauvie Island.

Not everyone who spoke wanted to talk about what defines rural character, and even some of those who did warned that Sauvie Island has uncommon challenges as a predominantly rural area just miles from the state’s largest city.

“How many rural places have traffic jams?” Wisner asked rhetorically.

Cindy Reid said increased visitation to Sauvie Island, which planning staff acknowledged earlier in the meeting as something that the island’s limited road infrastructure and parking areas have been struggling to deal with, has “already tipped the balance” of how the island is used.

“It grieves me, and I don’t have an answer,” said Reid. “I think all of us who live here, and I think many of the people who visit here, do love this place. But it’s becoming a very different place.”

Kyle Hoyt complained of “the constant influx of the city of Portland influencing how we occupy Sauvie Island as residents.”

“It’s very, very difficult for us to get by, get around,” Hoyt said. “My property’s constantly being used for a restroom by the bicyclists. People have this view of Sauvie Island as ‘Portland’s park.’”

The purpose of the rural area plan, as Barber and project manager Kevin Cook described it, is to outline what policies can and should be enacted for Sauvie Island and the Multnomah Channel, which also has its share of residents in floating homes or living aboard boats.

Monday’s meeting was the first of three Multnomah County Planning Commission meetings slated to be held on Sauvie Island. It was prefaced by an open house that gave attendees the opportunity to speak directly with Barber, Cook and other county employees, although many preferred to sit and wait as long as an hour and a half for the Planning Commission meeting to start.

“This is a touchpoint for us to meet with the community,” Barber said before the meeting.

Cook said county staff are to come up with a draft list of recommendations to place before the Planning Commission by June.

“At this point, we’re in the rolling-up-the-sleeves stage,” said Cook, noting future Planning Commission meeting dates at the school on March 3 and May 5.

The Multnomah County Board of County Commissioners gave county planners the green light last year to begin working on an update to the SIMC rural area plan, which Cook said is “getting a bit stale.”

The plan is meant to address an array of regional issues, from parks and public recreational facilities to marinas and moorages on the channel to multimodal transportation on and around the island.

Although the northern one-third of Sauvie Island — much of which is wilderness — is part of Columbia County, the plan is a Multnomah County initiative. Cook said the Community Advisory Committee formed to advise Multnomah County on updating the plan is still seeking a member to represent Columbia County. He suggested that interested individuals should visit the project website and contact county staff for details.