The red and white lawn signs have a simple message: “STOP FORCED REZONING!” Three words, five syllables, all caps, ending with an exclamation point. There’s not room on a lawn sign to address with any subtlety what changes the city’s planners have contemplated for the South Willamette Special Area Zone.
The signs point to a website (www.swneugene.org), where much more detail can be found, but casual observers may be satisfied with those five syllables. All sides of the controversy must agree that a fuller discussion is necessary. Although an op-ed essay provides only slightly more space than a lawn sign, let us begin.
REZONING – The changes being proposed concern the zoning classification of 474 properties, covering 122 acres centered on Willamette Street from 22nd and 33rd Avenues. Not all rezonings are created equal. The reclassification being proposed for these properties is what people call “upzoning.”
Rezoning is when your property was zoned for A, but now it’s zoned for B. Upzoning is where properties that were zoned to allow A will now be zoned to allow both B and A. Think of it like this. You bought a snowblower. You learn later that the same machine can be used as a rototiller. It’s no less of a snowblower for you every winter, and nobody will make you turn dirt with it in the spring. But now you know it can do that if you want it to.
None of the single-family homes identified would be forbidden from residential use. Tax assessments won’t change, unless the owner converts the property to a different use. Everything can stay exactly the same, if that’s what each property owner chooses. Home improvements would still be allowed, so long as any expansion amounts to less than 30 percent of the structure.
FORCED – The proposed changes would add new options, but nobody is being forced to do anything. Current owners have more constraints now than they would if the changes were adopted. As things currently stand, owners are forced to stay the same and not change what they do with their land.
If you go to the movie theater, you buy a ticket and you choose your seat. If somebody sits near you with popcorn, you’re not allowed to ask them to move because you don’t like the smell.
You might have chosen that row of seats because there were no popcorn eaters, just as you bought a house on a quiet residential street. But in each instance, you only paid for the small portion you can control. Selling your house is much harder than finding a different theater seat, but any changes in your neighborhood will not happen overnight — and they might not end up being as bad as you expect.
STOP – This insinuates there’s a “GO” somewhere. City staff considers the proposal’s status as “on a time out.” There is no current plan to bring the issue to the Eugene City Council, where decisions will ultimately be made.
Maybe you can stop something that’s already paused, but the effect of the change hardly merits an exclamation point. The city’s direct role will always be minimal. The city owns very little property in the affected area. No properties are targeted to be razed. No special tax breaks are being considered.
How the area around 29th Avenue and Willamette Street grows and changes slowly over time will be up to the people who have invested their money and pride to make it their home or where they do their business.
I’m not suggesting the specifics of the proposed Special Area Zone for South Willamette are perfect — far from it. Defining setbacks, protecting viewscapes, and preventing any caverns of hardscape monotony can all be improved.
Residents and property owners in and near the area can improve on the work the city has done so far, if or when that discussion resumes. And if the hope is that this plan provides a template for thoughtful improvements across the city, everyone will be grateful for conversations much deeper than any five syllables — or these 700 words in response — can convey.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.