Building Heights: Here’s the Deep Dive

Early this month, Kevin McHugh resigned as the chair of the Port Orford Planning Commission for health reasons. It was an appointment he’d held for some years, shepherding the commission through a wide variety of tasks, from revising the Municipal Code to reviewing permit applications from citizens. The final, and perhaps most consequential for Port Orford, was the commission’s consideration of building height for new construction.

Below is McHugh’s personal testimony on that subject, submitted for the public hearing record.

Highlights from the letter include these statements:

  • In August, the City Council moved aggressively to preserve the small town ambience enjoyed by Port Orford residents.
  • The Planning Commission failed the Council by not adopting wording that satisfied Council’s instructions. This failure should not go without public comment.
  • Any claim that changing allowable building heights in all zones harms property values is unsupported by the facts. Building height has no direct effect on the value of developed OR undeveloped land in the city.
  • It is not in the best interest of the city of Port Orford for land to be held in speculation of greater profitability. This reduces the taxable base, pushes development into less desirable areas, and handicaps orderly growth.
  • Public safety is the most important consideration when setting allowable building height.

The Issues in Play

A review of the comment letters submitted for the public hearings in November identifies many of the issues people think important.

  • The capacity of Port Orford’s water system is limited, and the city struggles to meet demand during peak summer months. This does not take into account drought conditions, sedimentation in the impoundment, or well-known problems with an aged distribution system.
  • Fire protection may be inadquate to fight fires in larger, taller structures, both because of the equipment available and because there is an insufficient water supply.
  • Who will pay for the necessary but costly upgrades to water and waste-water systems? Citizens voted down bond measures to do so in 2011, and development fees will not cover the need, even as increased density exacerbates the problems of supply and demand.
  • Intangible qualities such as liveability, natural beauty, and small-town ambience are likely to be adversely and permanently affected by increasing the type and amount of housing built. Plus there are no requirements for new buildings, either residential or commercial, to provide off-street parking.
  • And last, but not least, there will be impacts on potential financial returns for owners of vacant land, both absentee and resident. Will limiting the size of what can be built lower property values, or is there compensatory value to be found in maintaining and promoting Port Orford as a small, intimate, affordable, artsy community with enviable natural assets?

Whether reducing maximum building height in local zones addresses any of these concerns, and ultimately any development pressures on Port Orford, is an open question. But it is the one currently being presented.

This comment letter makes the best and most complete case for limiting height so far.