Date: Thursday, July 24, 2003

Neighbors object as the formerly homeless consider 20 acres near the Portland-Gresham border

Leaders of the Dignity Village tent city are interested in buying 20 acres of land on Northeast Marine Drive near the Portland-Gresham border, with hopes of creating a permanent self-sufficient village and cooperative farm.

A land deal is far from certain. The formerly homeless residents must raise enough money to rent or buy a permanent site -- the parcel at 175th Avenue and Marine Drive is listed at $1.4 million. There also may be physical and legal obstacles to residential development on the industrially zoned acreage.

Potential neighbors -- including the owners of a nearby industrial park and some residents of an upscale floating home marina -- are campaigning against the idea.

"I don't think having a homeless camp across the street from what we feel is a very nice residential neighborhood is compatible," said George Donnerberg, developer of the McGuire Point Marina, where typical floating homes cost $300,000 to $500,000.

Cameron Warren of Three Oaks Development Co., which owns the nearby Interstate Crossroads Business Center, agrees.

"In my opinion it will totally dissuade business from wanting to locate out here," he said. "It's a tough problem, but certainly the city has invested millions of dollars in this area for industrial uses. It wasn't done with these folks in mind."

Dignity Village Chairman Jack Tafari said villagers haven't made a formal offer on the land; first, they must scrutinize the feasibility of development and meet with potential neighbors.

"We'll be trying to create a good impression," he said.

Village officials said they are considering several potential sites, not just the one along Northeast Marine Drive. They recently spent weeks writing grant proposals, Tafari said.

Brian Kennedy, one of the owners of the 20-acre parcel, said money may squelch any deal.

In an informal discussion, the village "floated a number at me for $1,000 a month on some sort of lease-purchase option," Kennedy said. "The only way something like that could work at such a low number is if they put a substantial piece of cash down."

Village officials have visited the parcel several times, said Wayne Rask, a broker who represents the owners. "I'm sure they are sincere" in their proposals, Rask said. However, "it's not a dollar that's keeping them apart . . . It's the first $1,399,000."

Village evolves

Dignity Village started as a grass-roots alternative to homelessness in December 2000. Some residents said traditional city shelters were overcrowded, split up families and didn't allow pets. But complaints from neighbors and landowners forced campers to move from place to place in the city. In 2001, Portland prodded Dignity Village to move temporarily to a city-owned leaf composting yard near Portland International Airport. A village supporter pays the rent of $2,000 a month.

Now almost 3 years old, the village has a city-limited population of about 60 people, its own government and status as a nonprofit corporation. Most residents live in pods of tents that circle common areas, but the camp's physical structure evolves. Recently, residents and supporters used straw bales and reclaimed lumber to build a house with a shaded front porch, windows and a grape trellis.

The camp's agreement to use Sunderland Yard runs out at the end of September, and there is no guarantee that Portland officials will renew it. They have granted extensions in the past, said Marshal Runkel, assistant to city Commissioner Erik Sten. In any case, residents want to move to a permanent home.

The current site "is fairly noisy, with planes going right overhead," said village Vice Chairman Dogdave Hirschman. "We are on blacktop asphalt. In the summertime it's brutally hot. . . . Also, the land, because it's a compost yard, is designed to flood and stay flooded. A lot of the structures we have out here are built off the ground -- otherwise we'd be laying in water."

The camp's 2001 proposal aims for a permanent site, preferably near the city's core. Intermediate development would include permanent common areas, public parks, small retail booths where residents could operate businesses and a farming cooperative with sales to the public. Ultimately, the village would contain permanent homes and stores and durable infrastructure such as paths and roads.

Kennedy contacted villagers about the land, which was once a motorcycle racing track co-owned by his father. He and his sister inherited their 50 percent interest. Selling it hasn't been easy. Environmental and physical obstacles make it difficult to develop. One buyer backed away several years ago after a neighboring landowner refused to discuss granting road access through an adjacent property.

"We've had no realistic offers in the last four years at least," Kennedy said. "It just sits there," as the owners pay about $6,000 a year in property taxes.

Prospective neighbors say Dignity Village would also have a hard time developing the site. Obstacles include:

* Zoning: The land is zoned for industrial use, not residences or farms. Attorneys representing Dignity Village have found a recent state law that may get past that barrier, Runkel said. The law allows cities to designate transitional housing campgrounds "for people who lack permanent shelter and cannot be placed in other low-income housing." Cities can designate two campgrounds, giving preference to locations with access to grocery stores and public transit. But some potential neighbors say the law should not be interpreted to include Dignity's vision of permanent housing.

* Services: The land does not have water or sewer lines, nearby grocery stores or bus service. The village currently uses portable toilets and a city-provided water line. Donnerberg said environmental and other restrictions make it difficult and expensive to bring water and sewer lines to the Marine Drive land.

Tafari said residents would use portable toilets at first, and later hope to build composting toilets. Because Sunderland Yard is far from many services, residents already carpool and bicycle.

"As far as challenges go, I think we tend to meet them fairly well," Tafari said.

* Access: Marine Drive can be dangerous, and for safety reasons the county limits vehicle access from adjacent properties. Right now, the Marine Drive site has permission for only agricultural access, Rask said. The city wouldn't grant a permit to develop the property unless the developer established access through a side road to Northeast Cameron Boulevard, Rask said.

* Exposure: The area is buffeted by winter's east wind and the noise of jets headed to Portland International Airport.

"It is so unlivable for people to be there . . . this is preposterous," said Kevin Howard, a McGuire Point Marina resident and investor and a partner of Tim and Cameron Warren.

Village officials said the wind and airport noise are just as bad where they are now.

Safety concerns

Cameron Warren said that he has entertained the idea of buying the land, but that the Interstate Crossroads Business Center is only 55 percent full, with 50 to 70 businesses, and still has 40 acres left to develop.

"Our resources are limited as well," Warren said. "It's not time for us to add to our inventory of land right now. There are ongoing costs. You've got to pay taxes."

His family bought the property in 1993, and development took place in the late 1990s, slowing as the economy began to sour. But the Warrens invested in future development, putting money into things such as a storm water system that serves 65 acres. Thirty of those acres are still undeveloped, and sit next to the parcel considered by Dignity, Warren said.

Some potential neighbors worry about their safety. Howard says his wife often takes a nature path on the property that connects Marine Drive to the Columbia Slough.

"The reality is, from a homeowner's standpoint, they are intimidated" by campers and homeless people, Howard said. "If I see a whole field of blue tarps and people looking a certain way . . . right or wrong, I'm intimidated by that."

Linda Donnerberg, George Donnerberg's wife, asked the city for a list of police calls to Sunderland Yard. Most took place during three months at the end of 2001. There have been few recent calls; even those that look serious on the list turn out to be relatively minor on closer examination, police say.

"I have very little interaction with Dignity Village, because there's nothing going on" that would attract police interest, said Lt. Ron Schwartz of the Portland Police Bureau's Northeast Precinct.

Runkel said there haven't been any serious problems at the village for some time. In the beginning, the village had a number of police calls related to domestic violence. The village brought in specialists on domestic violence and trained security officers on how to deal with it.

"The record from there got a lot better," Runkel said. Since then, "as far as the city has been concerned, there hasn't been an incident that raised a red flag."

Property values

Some neighbors are concerned about property values. The Donnerbergs spent years developing their marina. The development was wrapped in red tape and sacrifice, and at one point, it brought them close to bankruptcy, George Donnerberg said. Now, they feel their achievement is threatened by an untested experiment.

Tafari said the village will be sheltered from view by trees and blackberry bushes. Those who pass the screen may find the structures "somewhat unsightly" at first, but villagers hope to build better-looking, more permanent houses that meet city codes.

"Darn it, poverty is often not pretty," he said. "We're not just pretty faces -- not even. We're people."

Many marina residents have written to city officials objecting to the potential deal. Critics have asked area neighborhood associations, east Multnomah County cities and the Columbia Corridor Association to get involved.

"What I'm concerned about is nobody's being told anything," said Gail Hanna of the North Gresham Neighborhood Association, who noted that the site is a few blocks from the Portland-Gresham boundary. "If you have actual facts and knowledge, you've got some place to go. If it's nothing firm, people get really worried and really scared."

Her husband, Gresham City Councilor Jack Hanna, said he asked City Manager Rob Fussell to get information on the plan.

Runkel said the city of Portland is not involved in the village's search for land. Nevertheless, potential neighbors have pressed Runkel and Sten for answers.

"People have been very concerned, and rightfully so," Runkel said. "If I heard that a group of homeless people working on an experimental approach to homelessness were moving in next door to me, I would at least be concerned. I would be worried and I would want to know what's going on with it."

The village is used to fearful responses. One meeting with potential neighbors at another site last year ended in a "major meltdown," Runkel said. The village formed a neighborhood outreach team to foster positive relations with neighbors.

Village representatives are organizing a meeting with the potential neighbors Wednesday. .

Hirschman said that the village is likely to find a not-in-my-backyard attitude anywhere but that the camp's track record can help overcome it.

"I think a lot of it has to do with the preconceived idea of what a homeless person is, because (the perception is) they're somehow either strung out on drugs or somehow involved in some kind of criminal activity, that there's something shady about homeless people," Hirschman said.

To counteract those perceptions, "we show what we can do," Hirschman said. "I can tell you anything in the world, and you're not going to believe it. Actions speak louder than words. Our actions so far have spoken volumes. The proposal to the city speaks volumes. It's a very well thought-out plan."

Catherine Trevison: 503-294-5971; ctrevison@news.oregonian.com