Local News: Astoria Planning Commission resumes discussion on code and height limits

The Astoria Planning Commission met Tuesday night to resume discussion about changes to city code that included the proposal for height limits of 28 feet and 30,000 sq fit floor plan limitations. They also considered planned renovations to a long term rental property that would turn it into an Air BnB style facility. Here’s more about what happened:

The City of Astoria bumped up against the limitations of its city code again at the Astoria Planning Commission’s meeting. The meeting began with a proposal from Developer Matt Gillis, who wants to renovate a building he owns at 641 Commercial Street. Gillis plans to convert it from an existing long term residence with 5 tenant units, to a short term Air BnB facility for vacation rentals.

City staff recommended a denial of the project for parking issues ,because it would displace long term residents in favor of visitor housing, and because the city is getting ready to codify a ban on short term rentals.

Gillis’ lawyer, Garrett Stephenson, basically said the same thing that the lawyer for the Hollander hospitality hotel project said, when the city was forced to allow the Fairfield Inn hotel on the site of the former Ship Inn restaurant on the Astoria waterfront – he said city code allows such uses in the zone where the house sits and legally the city may not be able to do much to stop it.

Garrett Stephenson: “Under ORS-22717873-A, which is known as the ‘fixed goal post rule,’ the applicant is entitled to proceed under whatever standards and regulations that are in place at the time that they file. Whatever the merits of banning short term rentals are in the city in the future, that’s not a ban that [his client] is subject to, because they applied before that was even considered.”

Audience member spoke during the public comment period about the issue of rising rental cost and homelessness, among them Astoria resident Pamela Mattson McDonald.

Pamela Mattson McDonald: “There is so much – it’s so difficult. There are people I know who are looking for apartments, and they can’t find a darn one here that they can afford. And they’re living on the street now. And I think this is going to take five other people on the street, or finding some other places and putting all their income into the apartment – place to live. Because the rents are doing so high. I was evicted from my apartment because my landlords upgraded my apartment and raised the rent so high I couldn’t afford to live there. So I am against this and I support the planner.”

Gillis requested an opportunity to further address the application and the commission continued the hearing to its next meeting on June 25, when it will hear a final rebuttal from the applicant.

With regard to waterfront building code changes, planning commissioners debated until almost 10:30 pm about ways to accomplish what residents have said they want: preserving views of the river, and whether to allow special districts for the Port of Astoria and the Astoria Warehousing properties on Marine Drive west of downtown.

The meeting ended without a vote, but left planner Rosemary Johnson tasked with interpreting the many ideas commissioners proposed during the discussion.

Among those ideas was limiting building width so that the result would be skinnier buildings perpendicular to the river, with view corridors between them to preserve public access. Height limits crept up from the original proposal of 28 feet, to 35 feet, with even some possible exceptions or variances to 45 feet that could be made for projects within special districts. Exceptions or variances would be made only if the property owner submitted a master plan to the city for approval and met other criteria.

Commissioner Darryl Moore said he was OK with a max height limit of 45 feet if buildings were narrow with view corridors. Commissioner Henri said she would be in favor of adopting floor area ratios instead of massing limits. Floor area ratio (FAR) is the relationship between the total amount of usable floor area that a building has, and the total area of the lot on which the building stands. A higher ratio is more likely to indicate dense or urban construction. Local governments sometimes use FAR for zoning codes.

Commissioner Cindy Price said the city has had enough experience with other projects to know that developers will seek to push any projects to maximum allowable limits.

Cindy Price: “Here’s one reason why I came down on not increasing height. It’s because in the current code for the Bridge Vista Overlay District, as was said after the Fairfield Inn, was like, ‘well, gee, we really didn’t expect – I mean we have these height and mass limitations, and we really didn’t expect that everybody would build to the absolute maximum.’ Well now we knowthat developers want to make their money and we can expect that they’re going to want to build to the maximum. You know if you have the ability to build to a 45 foot, 90-100 foot, whatever you have the ability to build, the bigger you build it the better your return is likely to be. So I think that’s what really you should be thinking about is that whatever we put in this code, wherever it is developable, that’s likely what’s going to be there.”

Port of Astoria executive director, Jim Knight, made a 10-minute presentation to the commission that emphasized what he said was the port’s desire to work with the community on growth and preserve pedestrian access.

In the end, city Planner Johnson said she would compile the many ideas floated in their discussion into specific code proposals they could consider again, at their June 25th meeting. I’m Joanne Rideout reporting.