State: City violated law in denying low-income housing

The Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals on Friday ruled the city of Medford made serious mistakes in denying approval for a low-income housing complex on Spring Street.

LUBA determined the city needs to reconsider the 100-unit Cherry Creek apartment complex proposed by the Jackson County Housing Authority that was opposed by local residents.

Mike Robinson, an attorney with Perkins Coie LLP of Portland, which represents the housing authority, said LUBA agreed with the housing authority's position that the City Council acted under pressure from opponents.

"They violated the state laws on open and fair hearings," he said. "They had discussions with the opponents outside of the hearings."

Robinson said the council didn't consider the issue of the apartment complex in an objective manner, but relied on subjective information.

"They're doing the bidding for the opponents," he said. "Frankly, they ought to be applying the law."

Robinson said the housing authority plans to file a federal suit against the city, charging it with discrimination against low-income families.

LUBA's 21-page ruling determined the City Council erred in not fully disclosing outside contacts with opponents of the apartment complex, located at the corner of Spring Street and Berkeley Way.

The council didn't fully explain why it rejected the recommendation of the city's Site Plan and Architectural Commission that found the apartment complex was compatible with the surrounding community, LUBA determined.

The housing authority requested the apartment complex based on a presumed zoning of MFR-20, which allows 20 units per acre. However, the council determined that zoning maps that show the parcel of land with an MFR-20 zoning are erroneous.

LUBA didn't support the city's claims, ruling that city zoning maps clearly show the property is zoned for 20 units per acre.

Lori Cooper, senior assistant city attorney, said the city couldn't make any response until it had a chance to read the LUBA ruling.

Councilman Dick Gordon said he hadn't read the LUBA ruling, but took issue with LUBA's determination that he had made a "harmless error" in not disclosing all his contacts with opponents of the apartment complex.

"I was in Canada on vacation when that vote was taken," he said.

The LUBA ruling calls into question undisclosed contacts made by other council members and Mayor Gary Wheeler.

The housing authority has invested $2 million for the 6-acre property, and design and engineering work. The proposed 16-building complex, comprising 94,550 square feet and 150 parking spaces, would be adjacent to Donahue-Frohnmayer Park.

The City Council on Sept. 15, 2011, rejected the project on the grounds it was incompatible with the neighborhood.

Chris Hill, a resident who has opposed the apartment complex, said she had not reviewed the LUBA decision.

"At the moment, I'm not quite sure what my personal reaction is," she said.

Hill said she has had concerns about the project from the beginning, particularly the confusing method the city undertakes in zoning a property.

To Hill, it seems clear the apartments are not a good fit in a residential community next to a park.

Now, mounting attorney fees and the housing authority's expensive legal effort are particularly bothersome to her.

"The housing authority's unlimited resources are being used to fight the will of the people in the community," she said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email dmann@mailtribune.com.

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