Oregon Transportation Commission: Stop Funding Molalla!

A sign that greets you driving into what’s called downtown Molalla. Certainly too many “ales” are being consumed by the “officials” who are supposed to use public money wisely!

You know a city is a mess when citizens have to spend their time compiling all the ways the place fails.  You know a city must be a disaster when citizens take the time to personally address important Oregon commissions like the Oregon Transportation Commission (OTC).  It’s long overdue to stop “honoring” wasteful cities like Molalla with public money. Here’s information presented on the record  at the March OTC meeting in Salem:

Commissioners,

It is an honor to address you in a room named for Gail Achterman. I was privileged to spend a day giving her a tour of the Molalla River Corridor. Her memory inspires me to work to make Oregon the best place it can be.

I forwarded you detailed observations about ongoing problems with ODOT’s interactions with Molalla on grants and wasted staff time. [entire detailed report with links is posted below].

Our public money is limited and our infrastructure is aging. The examples I provided show years of money wasted on plans that were never implemented, only to have ODOT grant more TGM money for more plans for Molalla. Molalla is in a constant battle to stay solvent after making poor planning choices a few years ago that were against the sound advice of state agencies.

I have observed ODOT staff wasting a great deal of time trying to get Molalla to comply with ODOT mandates, with codes and their own transportation plan. In some cases, after months of staff input, ODOT staff reverses and fails to follow through on demanding that Molalla follow state and local codes. When ODOT caves on standards, we are often left with worse highway conditions.

The “recommend” letters ODOT sends when plans impact state highways are a problem. Recently, with a development that will adjoin a state highway, Molalla chose to interpret “recommend” as a suggestion that could be ignored, causing months of ODOT staff time to be wasted. If ODOT is going to issue letters, ODOT needs to make it clear that it is an enforceable mandate. Otherwise, ODOT should stop wasting staff time and money on uncooperative cities like Molalla with “recommends” ODOT does not intend to uphold.

ODOT grant evaluations are not honest about whether or not a city has been cooperative with ODOT.  ODOT fails to look closely at whether or not a city has adopted and implemented the elements of past grants. In the case of Molalla, I have provided a long list of expensive grants that produced grandiose plans that have barely been implemented. It took ten years for Molalla to adopt the $122,000 TGM Downtown Master Plan. Even worse, before the Plan was adopted, ODOT granted $43,000 for a study of a proposed development based on the unadopted Plan, resulting in a summary rejection by LUBA

Please review how ODOT staff spends time and money on “recommend” letters and is failing to honestly rate cities in grant reviews. We can’t afford to continue to use public money to pile up plans in struggling cities that don’t work in good faith to use the plans, that do not have the skill or financial ability to implement plans, that ignore codes, and that fail to willingly accept ODOT’s input. In the case of Molalla, I have provided you with concrete examples of do-overs, plans ignored, and ongoing disregard for accepting ODOT’s sound advice to keep our roads as safe and functional as possible.

Molalla “officials” City Manager Dan Huff and his Public Works Manager Gerald Fisher (orange vest) having a “conference” in an alley? Maybe it was so high level they couldn’t interact in City Hall?

The following document was also provided to the Land Conservation and Development Commission (LCDC) and to Governor Brown:

March 14, 2017

 Dear Oregon Transportation Commission,

I have spent over ten years participating in planning issues in the Molalla area and was part of the Clackamas County REACT committee that lobbied for a local ACT. I have grave concerns about the way ODOT staff spends public money interacting with the City of Molalla and how grants have been issued to Molalla, only to produce plans that are ignored or that the Molalla is financially incapable of implementing.

I believe the following examples deserve your attention and that reforms are needed to ensure that we spend Oregon’s limited public money wisely. Please carefully consider the following interactions between ODOT and Molalla and note the failure to provide public benefit for the staff time and money spent. Please note the corrections I believe are needed in my summary.

 TGM DOWNTOWN MASTER PLAN  

The $122,000 Transportation and Growth Management (TGM) 2007 grant  produced a  2007 Molalla Downtown Master Plan/ 211 Streetscape Plan. http://www.cityofmolalla.com/planning/page/downtown-master-plan

The Plan shows $64 million needed for 20 years of transportation projects, yet next to nothing on the “priority” transportation project list has been implemented since the plan was written. ODOT’s Sonya Kazen (now retired) said that if this Downtown Plan was not fully adopted in 5 years Molalla’s ability to receive grants would be in jeopardy and the “Plan” would become obsolete. In 2008, DLCD urged the city to adopt and use the plan.  Molalla failed to adopt the Downtown Master Plan until 2014.

 In 2010, ODOT granted $43,000 for a traffic study for “Hart Street” mixed use apt/commercial project. The development was based on zoning/criteria provided in the Downtown Master Plan which was bundled with an unapproved comp plan/ urban reserve. Molalla’s Planning Commission approved Hart Street but the City Council denied it. The developer appealed to LUBA: Vest v. City of Molalla, 66 Or LUBA 155 (2012). LUBA found in favor of the City’s rejection because Hart Street was based on the non-adopted Downtown Master Plan’s zoning /criteria.

Why didn’t ODOT staff note that the Downtown Master Plan was not an adopted plan before ODOT wasted $43,000 on grant to study traffic impacts?

With the Downtown Master Plan filled with “priority projects” that have never been completed and an unrealistic “Forest Road” bypass that has been proven to be impossible to build though wetlands, ODOT has approved a 2016 TGM grant to “update” Molalla’s Transportation Plan. ODOT’s Michael Rock said the new TGM grant is likely to cost around $200,000.

Why is ODOT staff giving large TGM grants to a city that has failed to use past plans correctly; why has ODOT failed to note that virtually none of the 20 year, 63 million dollar road projects in the Downtown Master Plan it helped facilitate have been funded or completed?

 OREGON 211/ TOLIVER ROAD SAFETY IMPROVMENTS

 In 2002, Molalla and ODOT signed a HEP safety improvement project contract to develop sidewalks and put a stoplight at the Highway 213/ Toliver Road intersection. The contract required a 20% matching fund from Molalla and stated that Molalla would be responsible of any costs incurred by ODOT if Molalla failed to complete the project. ODOT did engineering studies; cost of the project was stated at about 1.5 million. Molalla backed out of the project in 2007, claiming it could not afford the matching funds. ODOT acknowledged that it did not charge Molalla for the work done. Now ODOT is engineering plans for a roundabout at 211/ Toliver (STIP 20478, engineering cost $700,000). Molalla’s Mayor Thompson is using social media to say he opposes a roundabout as the solution.

Why did ODOT fail to hold Molalla responsible for costs incurred on the 2002 project?

 STONEPLACE APTARTMENTS ON HIGHWAY 211

 Stoneplace Apartments has developed on Highway 211 in three phases. Phase one had highway improvements that included an access driveway with a left/right turn lane. When phase two began development, Molalla allowed foundations to go up with an access driveway to Highway 211 just west of the existing driveway without notifying ODOT.  Citizens had to inform ODOT about phase two while it was in progress and questioned the location of the new driveway. ODOT wrote that the new westerly access driveway should be restricted to emergency access, saying “Cannot be approved…approach is only about 250 feet from existing approach… fails to meet ODOT spacing standard of 500 feet as required in OAR 754-051-4020(2) (a) and (8), Table 6.” (Larry Olson, District Manager June 24, 2013)

ODOT then failed to follow its own mandate, allowing the new driveway with a “pork chop” low barrier with right in/right out only. That has caused all kinds of traffic problems on Highway 211, with drivers violating right turn only. Now Molalla wants a crosswalk in front of the apartments, with phase three (95 more apartments) coming online to add additional cross traffic. Crossing Highway 211 at Stoneplace would bring a pedestrian to the dangerous north side of Highway 211, which features deep open ditches, virtually no median and no sidewalks.

The above referenced Downtown Master Plan lists ODOT’s access spacing requirements (174); before these hundreds of apartments were built there were already far too many access points on Highway 211, as noted in the Plan.

Why didn’t ODOT stand by its initial requirement that the west driveway, created without ODOT approval or planning input, be a gated emergency only access?

This is also an example of Molalla’s failure to take over jurisdiction of Highway 211. ODOT has made multiple offers, including one in 2016, to do a degree of improvement and give Molalla a million dollars to take over jurisdiction. Molalla always refuses on the grounds it can’t afford to maintain the Highway (which is Main Street), yet it constantly bashes ODOT about conditions on the Highway:  http://cni.pmgnews.com/mop/157-news/303142-181168-odot-offers-molalla-a-deal-on-maintenance-of-hwy-211-

FOUR CORNERS INDUSTRIAL PARK

A 2006  $17,400 feasibility study for a “Four Corners Industrial Park” showed that it would take over 3 million dollars to fully develop the “park” – money Molalla did not have. In 2007 ODOT granted $281,000 toward the development of Molalla’s Four Corners Industrial Park.  In total, the public outlay from Clackamas County, ODOT and Business Oregon was $600,000. As of today the “industrial park” consists of a meager 850 foot dead end road with half street improvements and only two low paying businesses that located in 2007.  Molalla was supposed to complete the “park” and was sued by a landowner who traded land for infrastructure that Molalla failed to provide.

Further, per a forensic audit of missing SDC funds, it was found that Molalla illegally used SDCs for the Industrial Park: “About $1.5 million of the development charges between 2005 and 2008 went toward an industrial business park called Four Corners, a project not included in the city’s plan. In addition, the funds were used to pay for a citizen lawsuit.” (Oregonian March 29, 2012)

http://www.oregonlive.com/clackamascounty/index.ssf/2012/03/post_65.html

Currently, the totally stalled “park” is advertised as “approximately 38 developable acres; comprises 19 parcels with 14 property owners” yet there is no road access to most of the “developable acres”.

 Why did ODOT fail to check what was allowable in Molalla’s plans when it donated money to “Four Corners”? Why did ODOT fail to check to see if Molalla had the financial capacity to finish the “park”?

SHIRLEY BANK DEVELOPMENT / REFUSAL TO FOLLOW CODES

 The most recent example of Molalla failing to honor its own and State codes, violating hearing procedures, not accepting ODOT’s “recommend” letters and wasting endless ODOT staff time was the 2016 “Shirley Bank” seven house development proposed on Highway 211 on east Molalla city limits.

ODOT’s August 2016 “recommend” letter called for the developer to pay for curbs, gutters and sidewalks on the west side of Highway 211. Molalla’s staff report supported the “recommend”, yet after testimony was closed in the October hearing, Molalla’s Public Works Director told the novice Planning Commission that the developer didn’t want to pay for the highway improvements and suggested a waiver of remonstrance. The PC voted for the waiver and for a solid wall around the development. The hearing was closed, no continuance and no capacity for further input was granted.

After the closed hearing, ODOT rep Gail Curtis assured me in numerous emails that ODOT would not back down on requiring Molalla to follow codes (Ms. Curtis noted “developer’s obligation”, “We are not backing down”, “instructing the city to follow their own requirements”, “point out to the city what their own Transportation System Plan includes”)

 In a 11/2/16  letter (ODOT Case No: 6972) Seth Brumley Development Review Planner, ODOT Region 1, wrote a detailed letter the PC, including code requirements and cross section drawings, noting:“Because there is no certainty with a LID [local improvement district] the city would risk being out of compliance with the TSP (and state provisions) if sidewalks are not required as part of the subdivision development…Oregon administrative rule 660-012-0045 requires local governments to adopt regulations within urban areas that provide safe and convenient pedestrian connections to neighborhood activity centers within ½ mile of new subdivisions…”

The PC briefly (and illegally) re-opened the hearing in Dec., the developer to asked for the waiver (and the City Manager noted that the developer was at the hearing but that ODOT was not!). The City provided no handouts of the ODOT/ Brumley letter; the PC did not discuss the letter, and signed the plans allowing the waiver and solid wall.

ODOT’s Jon Makler then visited City Manager Huff; per a post visit phone call from Makler, Makler said Huff claimed an appeal to the City Council would not reverse the waiver (LID) so ODOT backed down and only appealed the lack of connectivity through the wall. At the appeal hearing in Feb., the City Council initially voted to limit the hearing to ODOT’s connectivity appeal. Then, violating hearing procedure, the Council ended up addressing the waiver and decided to follow code, requiring the developer to pay and for connectivity through the wall. It took seven months and an appeal hearing that violated process for Molalla to accept it needed to follow its own codes and plans.

How much ODOT staff time was spent and how much money did that wasted staff time cost the public?

 ODOT clearly spent a great deal of staff time from the initial “recommend” letter issued in August 2016 to the appeal hearing in mid-February on issues an ethical city would never have caused, i.e. the waiver of remonstrance (LID) for much needed highway improvements in a city that lacks connectivity and lacks sidewalks/curbs and gutters on much of Highway 211.

 Why did ODOT fail to appeal the waiver of remonstrance (LID); why did ODOT take the City Manager’s word that the waiver could not be reversed on appeal? Why did ODOT appeal for connectivity while ignoring the fact that without sidewalks a pedestrian would land in a ditch on unimproved highway?

 LACK OF ADEQUATE SYSTEM DEVELOPMENT CHARGES

With all the grants and plans, ODOT’s staff has ignored Molalla’s decades of failure to charge or collect SDCs capable of supporting transportation development. In 2008 (after the grandiose Downtown Master Plan was created) The Home Builder’s Association of Metropolitan Portland (2008) noted that Molalla had the lowest SDCs in the Portland Metro Area: “Based on a $200,000 home, SDC’s in the Portland Metro Area range from 2% of the cost of a new $200,000 home (City of Molalla) to 16% (City of Gresham, Springwater expansion area).  The average SDC in the Portland Metro Area is equal to $14,332 or 7% of the total cost of a new home.” The Homebuilders said Molalla’s 2008 SDC chart was:

$0  Transportation, $3,903  Sewer $0 Storm $0 Water $0  Parks  total $3,903

The forensic audit of 2012 proved that 2.5 million of SDCs were not properly accounted for or had been misspent (Oregonian March 29, 2012, link furnished above): “…investigation revealed a bigger issue: the city had used system development charges…to finance projects not included in the city’s capital improvement plan, a violation of the law. The city misspent street development charges, alone, to the tune of $1.77 million…Oregon law requires cities repay misused system development charges [2.5 million was found missing in the Molalla audit] within a year of when the violations were discovered.”

 Molalla has refused to reveal if or how it fully restored the 2.5 million dollars.

In Dec. 2016, a new SDC structure was proposed but the total SDC and the transportation SDC will keep Molalla on the low end of what cities charge: Transportation: Proposed methodology recommends a $4,000 SDC; Total SDCs for residential  $13,413

Molalla has been struggling for years to stay solvent. When Molalla hired Ellen Barnes as City Manager in 2012, she triggered the above mentioned forensic audit and began to cut jobs and services to try to correct Molalla’s slide into insolvency. Molalla stopped running its Adult Center, closed the City pool and cut many staff positions. Molalla has to carefully manage its budgets to stay in the black. “The mistakes piled up, the options narrowed, and the towns faced insolvency…I didn’t think a city could get like this,” Barnes said. “Where were the state oversight agencies?” (Oregonian April 15, 2012) http://www.oregonlive.com/clackamascounty/index.ssf/2012/04/with_lax_oversight_mismanaged.html

Why is ODOT continuing to endow Molalla with grants and plans when Molalla has failed to collect and account for SDCs to build enough funds for needed transportation improvements? Why have ODOT grant raters failed to note Molalla’s financial problems and its ongoing struggles to keep its budget balanced?

 SUMMARY

There is a demonstrable lack of coordination between ODOT departments to understand whether or not cities are using plans and codes properly, are cooperating willingly with ODOT’s “recommendations”, have the financial capacity and SDC’s needed to implement plans and have stable staff, planning commissions and enough civic involvement to be capable of understanding and implementing plans according to State and local codes.

ODOT is failing, when rating grant applications, to honestly evaluate a city’s history of implementing past plans and ability to implement new plans. ODOT’s staff fails to honestly consider a city’s financial ability to implement plans and whether there is stable city staff with enough depth to manage plans. ODOT has wasted public funds over and over again on “aspirational” transportation plans for Molalla which have little to no chance of being implemented.

ODOT needs to look at value received to the public from previous grants and to consider whether or not a city has cooperated with ODOT in good faith in development projects before future public funds are granted.

ODOT needs to decide what “recommend” really means: If “recommend” means “must/is necessary to meet State and local codes” then ODOT must be prepared to appeal all and any violations to the “recommend” letters. If “recommend” means “we wish you would do it but we won’t hold you to it” then ODOT should stop wasting staff time and public money writing “recommend” letters and just let bad development/ dangerous access and fee waivers to continue in Molalla, which has a record of doing everything possible to ignore ODOT’s “recommend” letters.

Molalla’s ongoing interest in fostering cheap development as it fails to upgrade infrastructure and fails provide quality of life features does not make it a willing ODOT “partner”.

 

 

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