For years, Warrenton has billed itself as “open for business.”
But as development booms this year and the city’s population continues to swell, city departments are discovering growing pains along the way.
Staffing levels have seen little change over the years and the city code, in many ways, applies to a Warrenton of the past. Now city officials and staff plan to review fees and charges that haven’t been increased in years. They are introducing policies and enforcing code they hope will enhance the city’s livability and preserve public safety. They are streamlining their approach to handling and reviewing development proposals large and small, and figuring out exactly what Warrenton should look like 10 or even 20 years from now.
“This isn’t a town of 2,000 anymore,” Mayor Henry Balensifer said. “We’re growing and we’re becoming a larger city and an economic powerhouse of the region. … We’ve just got to make sure we don’t run on autopilot.”
‘Formalize the process’
City Planner Skip Urling is focused almost entirely on development review right now. Drafting legislation for the City Commission, changing code, looking into issues like vacation rental regulations, all of these tasks have taken a back seat.
Warrenton Fire Chief Tim Demers estimates he sometimes spends three to four hours a day just on development — an unusual amount of time for the average fire chief, but necessary in the boom Warrenton is experiencing.
Where once someone might have been able to walk into City Hall with a question for the planning or building staff and walk away with an answer or a permit in no time, now it takes longer to get a permit, and the process is becoming more formal.
“People in this town are used to walking in and getting their questions answered,” City Manager Linda Engbretson said. “And sometimes we just can’t do that. Sometimes it’s, ‘OK, I have this report. I have this deadline. I’m the only person who can do this. We have to schedule an appointment.’”
“We have to formalize the process,” she explained. “I think that’s a little frustrating for people to get used to.”
Engbretson and her staff talk often about how to provide “excellent customer service” with current staffing levels given the high volume of projects and the adjustments the city is trying to make to carry Warrenton into the future. They plan to bring in consultants to help with some design review work, but other, bigger changes are needed. Engbretson said fees associated with development will likely have to be increased, and eventually, the city will need to conduct a comprehensive review of its code, an expensive and time-consuming undertaking.
‘Open for business’
When people think about Warrenton being open for business, they usually think big-box development.
Home Depot’s site designs were approved in 2008, then Costco came in 2009. Both have since undergone renovations and expansions. On the heels of their success came Staples, Big 5 Sporting Goods, Dollar Store, O’Reilly Auto Parts. Even more stores followed, filling the gaps between buildings, forming a hub clustered around the Ensign Lane intersection near the lifeline of traffic flowing down U.S. Highway 101.
These developments happened in phases. Recently, it seems like everything is happening at once. It’s kind of like trying to drink through a firehose.
“But it’s a good problem to have,” Balensifer said.
Last year, Astoria Ford left Astoria and joined the other car dealerships in Warrenton while Fort George, another Astoria-based company, plans to build a new distribution center, warehouse and event center nearby. Walmart is on its way and Pacific Coast Seafood plans to reopen its seafood plant next door to Hampton Lumber by the end of the year. And at the start of the summer, Urling estimated there were approximately 500 housing units in the works: homes, apartments, subdivisions. Many of these are large complexes, too — 37 units, 68 units — far larger than the duplexes and four- or six-unit buildings Urling is used to seeing built.
Fire and water
Anytime a new building goes up, Fire Chief Demers has to think about it on fire. How would his volunteers respond? What equipment would they need to tackle a first, second or third-story fire? Can he turn a fire engine around on this street?
The answer to that last question is “definitely,” “maybe,” or “no” depending on which street you are talking about. As Warrenton fills up, past inconsistencies are becoming more obvious. Some of Warrenton’s streets are as narrow as 20 feet. Cars ride up on the sidewalk to park to keep the roadway clear.
“Any time you start developing, you have to balance the fact that I have to fight fire somewhere with the fact that it has be cost effective for someone to put in a street and people have to be able to park and make it their home,” Demers said. “That’s generally a very conflicted thing.”
Of course, once you get a fire engine down the street, you have to be able to hook it up to a water supply. Warrenton’s water system is large and robust, Engbretson said, but some parts of the city are still underserved. As more development, particularly housing development, comes in there are ever-increasing demands on infrastructure.
“You begin to start looking at your resources and thinking about how much water can I get here,” Demers said. “It’s the middle of a summer day or its 8 a.m., 7 a.m. and everybody’s taking showers. Can we still maintain fire flows? Those things come into play.”
“At some point, we may have to say, ‘That’s all we’ve got,’” said Engbretson.
The city is in the middle of drafting a water master plan, an overview of the system nobody has taken before — probably because up until now the city hadn’t really needed to, Demers said.
The Planning Commission and City Commission, at a joint meeting at the end of August, talked to staff about requiring all new city streets to be a minimum of 36 feet across to accommodate off street-parking and provide for fire access.
But this doesn’t mean the old roads are getting torn out or that sidewalks will suddenly blossom. Change will come about gradually, city officials say, development by development or as maintenance issues come up and damaged roads need to be replaced.
This year, Engbretson started holding weekly development review meetings with department heads and staff to coordinate early and often as different projects go through the review and permitting process. The City Commission has begun meeting with volunteer boards and commissions. The primary goal in both cases is the same: To make sure everyone is on the same page.
In the weekly meetings, Engbretson and her staff want to make sure they all know what questions remain about a project, what each department needs before they are comfortable signing off on it.
City commissioners have encouraged the other boards, commissions and staff to ask for more and better things from development coming in. Several years ago, certain requirements did not exist or were not enforced. They expect some developers will be frustrated, arguing — correctly — for instance, that a project completed two years ago didn’t have to include sidewalks along a new road or a community park in subdivisions.
“But we’ve got to start somewhere,” Balensifer said, “and it’s starting now … You don’t want people to be in a neighborhood (years from now) and go, ‘Who was asleep at the wheel when they came up with this project?’”