Building Heights: Final Answer

Is the building heights issue a done deal? Everybody happy? Probably not the 160 people who signed the petition against keeping the 45-foot limit in the 4-C (commercial) zone. An ill-advised promise that citizens would have another opportunity to have their concerns addressed is looking extremely unlikely.

At its January meeting, part two of the heights hearing, the City Council settled on some desired changes in the residential and 10-MU zones. But it did not alter 4-C, which fronts Hwy. 101 north of the 10-MU and extends for some distance on either side. To be clear, 45-foot buildings are taller than 99 percent of structures that now stand in Port Orford. Many who testified were in favor of lowering virtually all height limits to a maximum of 28 to 30 feet. A petition to that effect circulated prior to the January hearing and was signed by about a hundred people. Plenty of comment letters said the same.

After the January decision, a new petition circulated, gathering 160 signatures. It called on the council to rethink the 4-C height limit in the new ordinance and also remove substantial exceptions that could be allowed for certain types of building, such as hospitals and nursing homes. But because the hearing was closed (since December 3), there could legally be no substantive changes made. So, at its February meeting, the council did a first AND second reading, then passed the new ordinance amending building heights without changes. Afterward, property owners were mailed a notice of the decision, and a draft of the approved ordinance was published. See it at

Okay. Stuff happens. But, muddying the water again, a councilor suggested sending the issue BACK to the Planning Commission for more research and a partial do-over of some sort — according to a post on Facebook. The implication was that we could just keep throwing options at the wall and hoping that they’d stick. This after a full and legal hearing that could reasonably be interpreted as the final word, and after a months-long process involving costs for staff time (Planner, Legal, Clerk), as well as for mailing the notice and the decision.

Still, we attended the virtual Planning Commission meeting last Tuesday to see what would happen. Nothing did. The chair opened the meeting with general remarks about the job of Planning, the need to know “exactly what we’re doing,” and the responsibilities of the commission. She said that she saw the FB post and checked it out with the mayor. He said, “I don’t recall this from the meeting.” Then the commissioners went on to other business.

End of story? It would seem so. Will we see a bunch of 45-foot buildings go up soon? No, likely not (but we can’t rule it out). Height alone is only one factor in the preservation of liveability and village character in Port Orford. We get that. And heights were reduced in the 10-MU and residential zones. But that 45-foot loophole concerns many of us.

Port Orford Jubilee parade, about 1951

New Lows

Image courtesy of

On January 21, the Port Orford City Council met to conclude its public hearing on maximum building heights in all city zones. The hearing, which began on November 19, had been continued for two months, but with public comment accepted only through December 3.

This lengthy pause should have ensured that councilors had plenty of time to read the many comments, study the record, and review municipal zoning. To get fully up to speed. But when the council finally met, they seemed completely unprepared.

Many questions were asked of the City Planner and City Attorney – procedural and factual questions that should have been asked in advance of the hearing. No wonder there were questions. The staff report was a rambling mess, giving councilors no brisk guidance through a maze of officialese. No clear cues were given on what was important to consider. Each decision involved a labored groping for a motion to be made. Discussion consisted of each councilor reciting their stock views. And the council never did address a number of changes to the code language that were presented in the report, outside of bare numbers.

Some councilors were unfamiliar with zone locations or had trouble reading the map. Pointing out these and other facts was time-consuming. And in fact, the map they were using was submitted electronically by a member of the public because there is no official one. As the planner said during the hearing, “Port Orford has always had a problem with maps.” How, after your decades with the city, could it still be the case that there is no official map?

But the deeply shocking thing was the disregard for what the people of Port Orford were saying. The vast majority called for lowering building heights in most zones to no more than 30 feet, with some preferring 25 or 28 feet. Yet no reference was made to these comments. Did councilors read them? Did they look at the petition with 80-plus signatures?

The elephant in the room was ignored. And in truth, it is a very big elephant. What about the city’s water problems? The aging water/sewer infrastructure? The importance of water availability and water pressure in fighting fires? Nobody wanted to go there, so they ignored it as a factor in their decisions.

Also, not much was said by councilors about preserving Port Orford’s coastal village character through good planning. In fact, they tiptoed around the idea of regulation as if it might bite. One even worried about people “losing their freedoms,” as if property rights (whatever that might mean) were sacrosanct. The people in mind, of course, are not local citizens, but speculators from outside the community. In the name of some nebulous “economic development,” any and all investment should be encouraged?

It is foolish to think change is not coming. But without wise planning, there will be no way to roll with it and still keep Port Orford the town we know and love. The place we chose for its beauty and liveability. The home that we choose to fight for, with value far beyond dollars and cents. Once big, expensive condos and hotels block the ocean views, McMansions loom over our neighborhoods, and commercial chains line Highway 101, there’s no going back. We’ve become another Lincoln City.

The talk around town was …

“I don’t feel like the community has been heard.”

“Council read the Ordinances? Why they might get a paper cut if they did that.”

“Everyone seemed to be so afflicted by the concept of ANY limits!”

“An incredible failure of their duty. They seemed to be acting on their own desires, not taking into account the many, many public comments.”

“Can we ask the Mayor to open this up for further discussion at the next meeting?”

“Can we do a recall? If Council isn’t listening to the citizens of Port Orford, they need to be replaced.”

“There are some significant decisions coming up that will be of equal impact to the town [as building heights], and I’m concerned.”


Here is a link to the council packet for the January 21 meeting, with comments from citizens starting on page 17.

By the numbers, these are the new maximum height limits council mandated. Complete information will be forthcoming in the form of findings, to be prepared by the city planner and city attorney for approval at the February meeting.

1-R (residential) 30 feet, 2 stories (formerly 35)

2-R (residential, higher density) 30 feet, 2 stories (formerly 35)

4-C (commercial and residential) 45 feet (no change)

5-I  (industrial) 45 feet (formerly no limit)

6-CD (controlled development; natural resources) 30 feet (formerly no limit)

7-MA (marine activity) 45 feet (no change)

8-PF (public facilities, parks) no limit (no change)

9-SO (shoreland overlay) 30 feet (formerly no limit)

10-MU (Battle Rock mixed use) 35 feet (formerly 45)

The Municipal Code can be found at

Interactive zoning map

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.

Hurry Up … and Wait

In August, something alerted the Port Orford City Council (CC) to the possibility of new development proposals downtown, where the maximum allowable building height is 45 feet in both the 4-C (commercial) and the 10-MU (mixed use) zones along Highway 101. Because Port Orford currently has few structures approaching 30 feet tall, any new buildings at 45 feet would be jarring. The council decided to mandate 25 feet maximum heights in ALL zones. The Planning Commission (PC) was instructed to rewrite the zoning code to achieve these changes. This was done and approved. The CC then sent notice of public hearings on these new land use regulations, as required by state law.

All well and good. Concerned citizens sent letters, issues were aired, and opinions were expressed at two hearings in November. The next step was for the council to discuss the proposed height restrictions and take action. But instead, the councilors deferred the matter … to January 2021. What caused them to put the brakes on, when in August it had seemed to be so urgent to take action?

This seems to be a pattern for the city. Discussion often drags on and on, over many months, without a decision. In 2016-2017, the PC deliberated creating an off-street parking ordinance, the CC wrangled over it, appointing committees and subcommittes to try to come to a compromise between factions. Finally, the council just voted no, we’re not going to do this.

Was it weariness? Fear of alienating one side or the other? Insufficient governing experience? Lack of leadership? Poor planning and legal advice? All of the above? The same process is also playing out right now with the Outdoor Lighting Code — formerly known as the Dark Sky Ordinance — which is waiting for approval after reaching a second reading at the CC. Now it’s been bumped to the back of the line.

You have about three days to get your comments about the proposed building height changes to CC by the December 3 deadline. But first, you may want to know more about the issues in play. That’s next.

The Last Low-Hanging Fruit?

Know of any town on the West Coast with vacant ocean view parcels downtown? And low real estate prices? Yes, you do! It’s Port Orford. Or it was. In the last year or so, investors have discovered the town and bought up dozens of properties, some that have been on and off the market since the Great Recession. Now the low-hanging fruit is pretty thin on the tree.

Recently, Port Orford woke up from its nap and began to realize that maybe the city isn’t prepared to deal with the mounting development pressures. How does the city grow and prosper without compromising its core values of liveability, small-town character, and natural beauty? What would sustainable growth look like?

The City Council (CC) decided to address at least some of the issues by considering new building height restrictions. First, the Planning Commission (PC) worked on language for the changes to zoning, then held a virtual hearing on November 10. The commissioners voted 4 to 3 to leave the height requirements as is. This was not the wish or the expectation of the council. At its August 20 meeting ( page 3), CC had directed PC to draft language setting allowable building heights to 25 feet across all zones. And to leave the heights as is was not what the PC had decided at a special meeting on September 29. The minutes of the PC’s meetings on September 29 and October 13 are in the packet for the hearing on November 10.

Next, the City Council held a (virtual) de novo hearing on November 19. The City Planner provided the same staff report to the Council as to Planning, with a cover letter indicating the PC’s decision. The notice and staff report are on the city’s web site. Attachments to the staff report represent written public comments presented for the Planning Commission hearing.

At the hearing before the City Council, there were two hours of public testimony. But the decision was made to continue to accept more comment from the public until Thursday, December 3. No December meeting will be held, and the hearing will continue at the regular meeting in January. If you want your views considered, now is the time to get them on the record. Send emails to: the City Administrator, You might also cc the current mayor at, and the incoming mayor, Or, you may drop off a printed copy at City Hall. Use the box outside, or put it through the mail slot.

Next up: Why the hurry, then the postponement?

We’re Now on Facebook Too

Here’s the first post we put up on our new Facebook page on November 25, 2020. And we’ve created a new category: Building Height. We want to get people talking about what’s going on in this little village on the coast.

Welcome to the page for 100 Friends of Port Orford! We have been around since 2015, when we first started talking about the golf course proposed for north of town. (Five years on, it’s still no more than a proposal, and their plan to use Port Orford’s recycled water is still a pipe dream.) Along the way, we weighed in on other local growth and planning issues, from commercial development to the city’s water and wastewater master plans. In each case, we sought out and posted as much data and as many public documents as we could find.

Now Port Orford is facing new development pressures. Desirable vacant parcels, especially in its commercial district, are attracting investors from all over. Does city zoning promote sustainable growth and also protect what we love about the town? The city council is currently tackling this question by attempting to legislate lower building height limits. Is this the way forward? More to come on this later. There’s still time to speak to the council, and 100 Friends of Port Orford will help you get the lay of the land. Literally.

Comments are welcome here. Posts are also welcome, but will be reviewed by a moderator before they can appear. To get an idea of who we are, visit the blog. It’s here that we intend to post longer essays and supporting documents. Welcome. Come back soon.