GEARHART - In a city hall packed tighter than a last-minute holiday parcel, councilors put a stamp of approval on letting the U.S. Postal Service decide whether to expand street mail delivery Wednesday.

Residents sought answers to questions surrounding the Gearhart Post Office, where, effective Feb. 1, box holders were required to pay a fee even though home mail delivery is not available to all of them. Where previously boxes had been free, the annual fee for a small box is $38 and medium and large boxes cost $68 and $126, respectively.

"Quite honestly, we are all very upset," Councilor Dianne Widdop said.

David Ellis, manager of U.S. Post Office operations in Portland, and Jim Wills, manager of the Seaside Post Office, attended to try to clarify the situation.

Concern about the new fees for post office boxes 'The city supports street delivery and opens up that option to any residents in the city.'- Ed Tice, city councilor, Gearhartpreviously surfaced in Cannon Beach, where a small box now costs $24 a year. A meeting with Ellis to address issues there is planned next month.

Residents in both towns have brought their concerns about the fees to the attention of Oregon representatives in Congress, including U.S. Rep. David Wu and Sen. Gordon Smith. Both have written letters urging postal officials to seek resolution as soon as possible.

Discrepancy debates

Many considerations determine the different rates at different post offices, including proximity to other post offices, Ellis said.

The mail matter is compounded in Gearhart because it shares a ZIP code with Seaside. Gearhart residents said that overlap sometimes leads to delivery difficulties.

The problem apparently dates to 1955, when, for reasons not entirely clear, residents north of Pacific Way apparently opted to not take part of the standard home delivery of mail from Seaside, Ellis said.

The separation was sparked by a dispute among local postmasters about Gearhart stamps being mailed from Seaside, resident Jack Keeler said. That argument set the stage for the elimination of Gearhart's own ZIP code.

The only city council record of what followed was from Sept. 6, 1961, when councilors acknowledged petitions in protest of the Gearhart Post Office becoming a branch of the Seaside Post Office. Today, the Gearhart office is still run by a contractor and tied to Seaside.

The community post office was closed temporarily in mid-December for issues apparently relating to an audit of the previous contractor, and reopened shortly thereafter.

Regardless of what happens with fees and delivery, "I have no intention of shutting that Gearhart office down," Ellis added.

However, in the past, the rules about fees were improperly applied, he said.

Residents north of Pacific Way are especially concerned about the newly imposed post office box fees because they do not currently have an alternative of home mail delivery, Widdop said. "We want free mail delivery because we feel we are entitled to it."

The rules are not that simple, Ellis said.

Postal customers are entitled to one form of getting their mail without fees. If they are deemed eligible for home delivery and choose to have home delivery, and the Postal Service decides to refuse, then the customers are entitled to "no-fee" post office boxes, he said.

"If you say you want delivery on the north side, that puts the burden on me to either provide delivery (on our terms) or offer no-fee boxes," he said.

"We are not required to provide street delivery where none exists," he added. "You can request it, but we don't have to provide it."

Determining delivery

Contemporary standards for home delivery in cities are different than they were in past decades, with mailboxes at every house door. For carrier safety and efficiency, clustered "collection box units" typically are placed along main roads.

Ellis said he has received a petition with more than 100 Gearhart residents opposed to home mail delivery. He asked city councilors to play a role in trying to determine what residents want.

Currently, a majority of residents south of Pacific Way who already are entitled to home mail delivery prefer to have a post office boxes instead, Councilor Chuck Schluter said.

But the fees may change that outlook.

People who are interested in having home delivery must submit extension of service request forms to the U.S. Postal Service, Ellis said.

Councilors sought to end the discrepancy north and south of Pacific Way by having the Postal Service consider delivery everywhere in city limits.

They voted 5-0 in favor of a motion by Councilor Ed Tice "to direct the Postal Service to make a decision regarding street delivery to all residents of Gearhart." By that motion, he added at the request of Ellis, "the city supports street delivery and opens up that option to any residents in the city."

Councilors also agreed to draft a letter to Wills to begin the process of formally petitioning for Gearhart to get its own ZIP code.

The intent of the motion regarding mail delivery, Tice said, is for "the entire city to be effected the same way."

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