Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer is not anti-development.
Like others on the City Commission, the mayor has a record of being friendly to new business in Clatsop County’s fastest-growing city.
So it was a little eye-opening when Balensifer, in his first State of the City speech in August, took a sharp line against a relaxed approach to vetting projects.
“Warrenton for Warrenton is the new mantra,” he said, urging the city to take a careful look at development codes and examine growth more intelligently.
Appointed mayor after Mark Kujala stepped down in 2017, Balensifer, the communications manager at JBT Lektro Inc., was elected to a four-year term last November.
But he was first elected to the City Commission in 2012, and served on the Planning Commission before that, so he had a role in some of the policy direction he was critical of in his address.
The Warrenton High School graduate, whose grandmother, Barbara Balensifer, was mayor in the late 1990s, talked about the theme of his speech, and his thoughts about development, in an interview.
Q: What motivated your speech?
A: This is, in a sense, a cultural shift for the city. That’s why that theme came about, is to really kind of put the flag in the ground, so to speak.
Q: The city took a lot of grief over Wendy’s, especially the drive-thru. In hindsight, what would you have done differently?
A: Our Transportation System Plan should have been done a couple years ago, and it didn’t really get finished until just about the same time. That delayed new traffic standards, because ODOT (Oregon Department of Transportation) doesn’t generally have a conversation with you, just to have a conversation.
The TSP is really where you set the standard.
Q: You mentioned neighborhoods being built without streetlights. How does that happen?
A: That’s a good question. I shake my head, and scratch my head, all at the same time.
There’s roads that are tens of feet off the plat, so that people have skewed yards. My only conjecture is that certain individuals who were building those things, the city must have given a conditional approval, and then said, ‘Once you finish, it just needs to be done.’
And when it got finished, they signed off on it, and it didn’t get done.
Q: In Astoria, we have had debates over national chains like Grocery Outlet and Dollar General. We have heard people say, “That’s what Warrenton is for.”
A: It aggravates me, I’ll just say that.
I don’t have anything against big-box stores, I’ll be straight with that, and neither does the commission. But if the connotation is that Warrenton has become a dumping ground for things — it’s just an industrial wasteland, so to speak — it’s a lot more than that.
Q: Some of the best potential for new development is around the Astoria Regional Airport and the North Coast Business Park. What kinds of projects would you like to see happen?
A: Industrial projects. It’s zoned for that and I’m going to zealously protect the industrial zoning of that.
I know there is some friction between certain individuals and entities about the commercialization of the North Coast Business Park. There’s probably going to be some technicalities in law, but, right now, it’s industrial zoned.
I feel that we have a lacking of diversification of our industrial sector, and there are opportunities to capitalize on that.
Q: Warrenton is growing as a place for younger families. We see it in the housing and school enrollment data. What can the city do to improve the quality of life?
A: We can get more creative with our zoning. I personally don’t like the kind of cookie-cutter style densities that we put into our housing.
... I think that there’s opportunities to get more creative. I think with tiny homes being developed in Warrenton — and we’re working on those codes — we’ve had a lot of local interest in that.
And that’s another key — citizen engagement, like the Spur 104 charrette process. So whatever comes out of Spur 104, you can’t say that the city didn’t open it up for other thoughts, because the community really had a very active hand in developing the plans for that.
In traffic-challenged areas like 104, that’s really going to be critical, is to get community involvement in what is going to be an acceptable level of development.
Q: What was the reaction to your speech?
A: With the exception of one person who didn’t live in the city of Warrenton, very positive. A lot of people said, ‘Finally.’