Contentious plan to build new Costco in south Salem approved
Neighbors fear the project will destroy a grove of white oaks, and bring too much traffic
After years of legal and political turmoil, Salem City Council has approved a site plan review of a proposed Kuebler Gateway Shopping Center development, advancing the plans to build a controversial new Costco Wholesale store.
Residents have fought the plans, saying a Costco site would flood the nearby neighborhoods and streets with traffic, and construction would destroy an ancient grove of Oregon white oaks on the land.
Despite the developer's promise to transplant the trees, some tree experts say the move would most likely kill the oaks.
None of the councilors seemed particularly happy about approving the plan, but agreed that their hands were tied by the decisions the previous council made in 2007 and by recent legal rulings.
Council members may not discuss the substance of the application or decision publicly until a written decision approving the application is finalized at an upcoming council meeting.
A 13-year battle
Thirteen years ago, Salem City Council approved a comprehensive plan change and zoning change for the 23-acre swath of land west of Interstate 5 and north of a residential neighborhood on Kuebler Boulevard.
The Kuebler Gateway Shopping Center is set to include four retail buildings, a gas station with up to 30 tanks and a 168,550-square-foot Costco Wholesale to replace the current location on Mission Street SE.
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When a planning administrator approved developer PacTrust's site plan in October 2018, neighbors appealed to the City Council, claiming they were led to believe the shopping center would have a smaller draw.
After a flood of public opposition, the City Council in December 2018 denied the planning application.
PacTrust leaders balked at the council's decision.
"This site is approved for a shopping center — in fact that is the only use allowed," PacTrust vice president Shari Reed said. "All successful shopping centers have a great anchor retailer and Costco is one of the most successful highly valued retailers in the business, and we’re thrilled that they’ve selected our site to open a new store in Salem."
They appealed to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals and in 2019 filed a $9.9 million lawsuit against the city.
The Land Use Board of Appeals determined that the city erred in 2018 by finding that the proposed shopping center violated conditions of the comprehensive plan change, that a store such as Costco is a permitted use and that the city's decision failed to address PacTrust's vested right for approval based on the virtue of their $3.7 million investment in helping widen Kuebler Boulevard.
LUBA sent the case back to the council for additional consideration in August 2019. Six months later, the Oregon Court of Appeals upheld LUBA's decision.
The plan went back before the City Council for public comment, a rebuttal period and consideration.
Previous coverage:Will southeast Salem get a new Costco store despite neighbors' concerns?
Neighbors oppose the plan
Dozens of residents submitted public comments, the majority of them urging the council to stand by its previous decision and reject the site plan.
South Gateway Neighborhood Association Chair Glenn Baly said the issue wasn't simply about development, but it was the size and scope of the project. A smaller neighborhood shopping center would be welcome in the area, he said.
South Salem resident Lora Meisner said the gridlock and traffic tied to the shopping center would put children, cyclists and pedestrians in the surrounding neighborhoods at risk.
Following the council's vote on Monday, Meisner said the council is supposed to represent the taxpayers of Salem and ignored what most of the residents wanted.
"The City Council’s decision makes me wonder if they read any of the testimony that was submitted in July, especially the respected experts on transplanting the white oaks will probably be a death sentence," Meisner said. "Additionally, there was a site plan submitted that showed how the trees could have stayed in their present location and still have the Costco store."
Baly said the South Gateway Neighborhood Association was disappointed that the council failed to prioritize the needs of the community in its decision.
'The die was cast in 2007'
On Monday, city staff outlined the facts of the case and recommended that the City Council approve the site plan review.
Council approved the plan in an 8 to 1 vote, with councilor Jackie Leung as the lone nay vote.
Leung said the area has changed significantly over the past 13 years, becoming more residential. She said she preferred a "family-friendly, neighborhood-oriented" center instead of a big box store.
Leung also expressed concern over the tree canopy and the potential loss of the trees.
Councilor Chris Hoy said it was a difficult decision and the shopping center would have a serious impact on the area, but that the council's hands were tied by the LUBA decision and the actions of the previous council.
"The die was cast in 2007, and we have no flexibility to change it now," Hoy said.
Longtime council member Brad Nanke said that in 2007, the council never intended for a Costco to come into the area when they approved the plan.
Nanke and Mayor Chuck Bennett were the only sitting members of the current council who were also on the council in 2007.
Councilor Vanessa Nordyke said the ramifications of the 2007 vote left the councilors without the free reign to undo what was done years ago and was an example of the ripple effects council decisions can have.
"This is why it's important to pay attention to who you put in office," Nordyke said.
Bennett said he voted against the zoning change as a councilor back in 2007.
"I thought this was a bad zoning idea," Bennett said. "I thought it was a bad use of the land."
But in 2018, when the council rejected the plan, he thought the decision was a mistake and on shaky legal ground. He, Nanke and councilor Jim Lewis voted against reversing the planning decision.
Bennett said leaving the Costco at its current location wasn't ideal because it was too crowded.
"Hopefully (Costco) will be a good neighbor out there," Bennett said.
How it happened
- August 2007: City Council approves zoning change for the land at Kuebler Boulevard, allowing PacTrust to move forward with developing the site.
- October 2018: City planning administrator approves the site application.
- November 2018: Neighbors appealed the case to the Salem City Council.
- December 2018: City Council denies the application.
- December 2018: Applicant and neighbors appeal to Land Use Board of Appeals.
- August 2019: LUBA remands the case to the city for additional consideration.
- October 2019: LUBA decision appealed to Court of Appeals.
- February 2020: Court of Appeals affirms LUBA's decision.
- June 2020: Applicant submits new materials for the City Council's consideration.
- July/August/September 2020: Public comment and rebuttal period.
- September 2020: Salem City Council votes to approve the site plan review.
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