Local News: Astoria City Council discusses code changes

The Astoria City Council moved forward Monday as they considered proposed changes to city code. Joanne Rideout has the story.

Listen below: [5:30]


The Astoria City Council again took on the task of defining waterfront city code at their Monday night meeting. The council was considering a proposal from the city’s planning commission that would have set waterfront height limits at 35 feet, also including a complex Floor Area Ratio formula which would presumably limit the potential for blocky buildings that eclipse views.

While the proposal had been hailed by some audience members who represented business interests on the waterfront, councilors were not so sure.

Councilor Roger Rocka asked pointed questions about the practical effect of the proposed rules. He asked City Planning consultant Rosemary Johnson about how the new rules would have affected the configuration of the already approved 45-oot high Fairfield Inn hotel project..That hotel will be located on the old Ship Inn restaurant waterfront site, a controversial approval that showed how existing “outright use” code gives the city little latitude to limit large buildings on the River Walk.

Planner Johnson:

It did not impact it very much on its footprint. But it would have at least one story less, and there are some other design issues that would have been written into it that would have helped.”

Councilor Rocka said the city is considering complex changes, and is so far holding the door open for development without knowing what that might be. He said city code should protect the city but leave open the door for good ideas that have tangible benefits for residents. He recommended the city again embrace a 28 foot height limit, and leave changes beyond that in the realm of “conditional use,” which requires individual project approval, and gives the city more latitude to disapprove projects.

Councilor Rocka:

You know this packet that we got is the kind of packet that will strike fear into the heart of any council member, because of the detail. You know every time we deal with these zoning issues, I feel like I am in deep weeds. And trying to figure out where we are going through the weeds. And in those weeds I don’t want us to lose sight of the outcome we want. What is the outcome that we want from all of this?. So in that vein I’d like to offer a tip of my hat to Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer, In his state of the city address last week, Balensifer said the city must ensure that development projects have tangible benefits for residents. I think that’s the kind of leadership that we’re being called on to demonstrate. This is a city where people want to be, for business or for pleasure. Because it’s a special place in which to live. That’s the key to our success. And it’s a reason to take seriously the people who come here and testify, and pour out their love and care for this place.”

Councilor Jessamyn West said she was interested in making code amendments restrictive enough that large hotel projects would simply not “pencil out.” She said the heart of the waterfront development issue is less about height and mass and more about types of development. She suggested the city ban “formula businesses,” a term describing stores and restaurants with standardized services, décor, methods of operation, and other features that make them virtually identical to businesses elsewhere.

In earlier meeting business, councilors had the opportunity to see what might be in store for them with future projects, if the city does not define its new code carefully. A Portland lawyer for Matt Gillis, a developer who was seeking to change a long term housing project into a short term rental facility, gave a presentation before the council for an appeal of the city’s initial denial of the conversion.

The conversion of this house near the Astoria Post Office would remove 5 apartments from the long term housing pool in the city. That lawyer’s lengthy presentation consisted of noting every loophole in the city’s code that could potentially make it impossible for the city to deny the project. In the end, the fact that the permit for the project was classified as “conditional use” instead of “outright use” meant the council had the legal latitude to apply other more subjective criteria to the project. The council denied the appeal.

The meeting lasted almost four hours. In the last half hour, the council moved the agenda around to deal with routine items and allow city employees to go home. They also discussed the pros and cons of creating special planning districts for Astoria Warehousing property on Marine Drive, and the Port of Astoria. While Councilor Tom Brownson made a lengthy pitch for allowing the port to have more latitude in development, Councilor Joan Herman, said the council had not discussed special planned districts within the Bridge Vista Overlay Zone previously, and she questioned the need for them.

She said the city has received at least 600 signatures from residents who want building heights limited to 28 feet. She also questioned the proposal to allow individual building square footage to be up to 30,000 square feet. She suggested reducing building square footage to 20,000 square feet, and keeping the 28 foot limit proposed by the council in previous discussions. She said the new Astoria coop building under construction on Marine Drive is only 7,500 square feet but is a sizeable building. Herman said she loves what makes Astoria unique.

I really feel that we should be listening to all of the people who have come since 2008, 2009, to talk to the city council, to talk to the planning commission, about what they feel is best for Astoria. They may not be the landowners right on the waterfront, but I feel like we are the caretakers of this place that we are extremely fortunate to live in.”

The council did not make any decisions and decided to continue the discussion to the next city council meeting.

I’m Joanne Rideout reporting.