The townhouse on the South Slope was already built and both units had buyers before the father-son team behind Harn Construction heard there was a problem.
The townhouse is on a single lot with a single sewer lateral serving both units. If they intended to sell the units separately, it wasn’t going to work, wrote city planning consultant Rosemary Johnson in a March email to Bob and Corey Harn.
According to the city, while you could build a duplex on the vacant 8,000-square-foot lot and use a single sewer line, you couldn’t build a townhouse with units sold to separate people. That would require a second sewer lateral and a split lot — and you can’t split lots that are under 10,000 square feet in Astoria. Not without a variance.
From the Harns’ perspective, there was another problem: On permits the builders pulled last summer that were approved by city staff, the project is described as “two new townhomes” or simply as “townhouses.” In a city file on the project, there’s no documentation of any issues with the project until February and March.
While the Harns and city staff try to sort through the misunderstanding, the confusion over the project could prompt a broader conversation about the flexibility of Astoria’s development rules. The city has discussed how to encourage different types of housing to help ease a housing crunch.
City Manager Brett Estes maintains staff told the Harns from the very beginning, even before the land was purchased, about what needed to happen in order for the townhouse project and individual sale of the units to work. One option discussed, he said, was the creation of a condominium plat where the units were divided for individual sale but the land remained whole, property held in common by the owners.
But the ball was in the Harns’ court to get that particular process going.
The plans the Harns submitted looked like duplex plans, Estes said. The Public Works Department believed there was an understanding that the land itself might be kept in common ownership. The Harns were also told that if they wanted to divide the ownership of the units, they would need to install individual utility services.
But the early discussions and the city’s assumptions about how the Harns planned to divide the units or possibly the property are not captured in the city’s written records for the property and the label “townhouse” is on everything. The Harns say there was never any discussion about building duplexes or creating a condominium plat. The intent was always to create townhouses and sell the units separately.
“When they issued the building permit to them, it was staff’s understanding that (the Harns) still had an interest in dividing these two units,” Estes said, adding, “I think everyone probably assumed that everyone was talking the same talk along the way. I think it was probably unclear when the building permit was issued which way they were going to go.”
But no one from the city crossed out “townhouse” and wrote in “duplex.” The only comment on a building permit issued in August is that “if townhomes will be in separate ownership, documentation for a (homeowners association) shall be submitted.”
“In hindsight, we should have scratched out ‘townhome’ and written ‘duplex,’” Estes said.
The Harns remember things differently.
The men have been building in Clatsop County for decades. They started out in Cannon Beach and worked their way north. The South Slope project was their first stab at building townhouses, inspired by a relative who had recently purchased a townhouse in Spokane, Washington, and loved her new living quarters.
Townhouses appeared to be less arduous than building a condo, the Harns say. They were also potentially a better return on investment than building a single-family home.
They say they checked with the city before buying the property and again when they applied for permits. Later, their plumber checked with city engineering to make sure one sewer lateral was acceptable. At every turn, they say they were told, “Yes, it’s OK.”
“My guess is they probably should not have given us the permit for townhouses in the first place,” Corey Harn said. “I don’t know what happened there.”
When the units were listed for sale, there was even more interest from potential buyers than the Harns expected. One potential buyer is Kevin Leahy, the executive director of Clatsop Economic Development Resources. When he went to do his due diligence with the city in February, the project hit a snag.
Leahy was given a list of things the Harns needed to do in order for a separate sale of the townhouse units to work. But Bob Harn said he was later told everything could proceed. A woman who bought the second unit had already put in her notice at her apartment.
“The next thing I know, I get the message from (Johnson in March), ‘You can’t sell them and these are all the things you need to do,’” Harn said.
Johnson detailed steps they would need to take to create a condominium plat — a lengthy and expensive process. The Harns were already losing money on the project and were anxious for their buyers, especially the woman who wouldn’t have a place to live if the new unit was not available soon. They wanted another option.
Later, the city suggested they apply for a variance to the rule on minimum lot sizes. With a variance, the Harns could divide the single lot into two lots that were 4,000 square feet each instead of the usual 5,000.
The deadline for public input on their request falls later this month.
The Harns will also need to install a second sewer line, but the city has agreed to give them extra time to do the work to allow the sale of the units to proceed.
It’s not quite the conclusion the Harns would like, but at least it’s a conclusion.
“I’ve built pretty much all through the county and never experienced something like this,” Bob Harn said.
Mayor Bruce Jones, who met with Bob Harn in March, and Estes see the situation as a unique, one-off issue — the result of a misunderstanding or miscommunication.
Jones said he is satisfied that city staff provided information up front and tried to work with the Harns.
But the city leaders also see an opportunity to again discuss codes and zoning for housing development.
During his campaign last year and as mayor, Jones said Astoria needs to address housing issues by allowing more flexibility for different types of development, perhaps by permitting things like smaller minimum lot sizes, greater maximum lot coverage and examining height restrictions and setback requirements.
A draft Clatsop County housing study has made similar assertions about the need for housing diversity.
A presentation during a City Council work session on affordable housing in 2016 outlined where townhouses and rowhouses are allowed — only in Mill Pond and some commercial zones — and where zoning could be opened up to allow more of this type of development.
Townhouses and rowhouses could be a less expensive alternative for people than, say, a larger detached house, the presentation noted.
The City Council discussed possible changes and ultimately rejected the proposals or put them on the back burner.
But, Jones said, “I do think that once we get the county housing study we need to look at some of those recommendations again.”