It is a truism in the news business and a source of frustration to local officials everywhere that most of the public doesn’t take notice of comment periods and other chances to weigh-in on important government matters until it’s too late — or almost too late — for it to make a difference. Every newspaper editor in the land has been on the receiving end of irritated phone calls that start something like, “Why didn’t you let us know?” when in fact there may have been several previous stories attempting to do just that.
In the case of Seaside’s proposed $68 million southeast urban renewal plan, our coverage began in earnest about a quarter of a year ago, supplemented by letters to the editor and other calls to action. The city conducted a number of public meetings on the matter. Nevertheless, a heated public hearing on the plan last week is a clear indication that the outreach process has been something less than a success as the City Council readies for an Aug. 28 vote.
Resident Maria Pincetich said there has been a lack of meaningful interaction with the city regarding the merits of the various projects the urban renewal plan — with an associated earmark of taxes — will be used to pay for. In her view, the process was slanted toward the narrower question of conformance with the city’s existing comprehensive plan.
Just as citizens have a somewhat deserved reputation for not paying attention soon enough, municipal officials often have a reputation for putting an enthusiasm for growth and development ahead of other deserving public goals. It would be unfair to suggest that is entirely what’s going on in Seaside, though some citizens clearly believe over-development and increased traffic congestion are possible consequences of the renewal plan.
Oregon voters have long supported growth-management planning. A key component is constraining cities within existing borders to the extent possible, while preserving forests, farms and other forms of open space around them. Urban expansions are expected to happen when needed, but within the framework of preserving community values and bearing in mind the ability to affordably provide urban-style services — everything from water and sewer to policing.
At least some of the dissent to Seaside’s plan revolves around its inclusion of 32 acres of currently unincorporated forest, something that has recently attracted the attention of the Oregon Coast Alliance conservation group. This raises the prospect of an appeal to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.
However, local voters approved a new school complex above the tsunami inundation zone. One can argue that implicit in that decision is also taking steps to assure school access, something acquisition of the forestland will facilitate. Here on the coast where both tsunamis and sea-level rise are real concerns, it’s reasonable to anticipate that more eastward expansion will be inevitable, irrespective of other policy goals.
Much of the new renewal plan deals with an estimated $45 million for bridge improvements at avenues A, G, S and U. In this case also, it can be argued that better bridges might encourage growth. But it can be counter argued that better bridges are needed for tsunami evacuation and simple urban functionality.
Overall, it appears Seaside’s plans are not an overreach. A case can be made, however, for extending the public-engagement period by 30 or 60 days to absolutely ensure citizens know what to expect. No plan will ever gain complete buy-in, though, and at some point the city’s elected councilors are well within their rights and responsibilities to make a decision.
For many in the county, Seaside’s decision to turn down a U.S. Highway 101 bypass will always go down in history as a sadly missed opportunity. But the city has made good use of past urban renewal funds, and this time promises to be no different.