News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Citizens group demanding answers

An ad hoc assembly of activists calling themselves CATS — Community Action Team of Sisters — is becoming more vocal in its efforts to call attention to what it perceives as misguided decisions by City officials.

At the March 8 regularly scheduled City Council meeting, CATS’ self-described “unofficial leader,” Mark Dickens, addressed the councilors, and began by telling them he had “unfortunate harsh words” for them.

“This board has lost the trust of this community,” Dickens said. “I personally am not going to sit idly by and watch what has endured for over 150 years be sold off and squandered by weak, greedy, and cowardice (sic) individuals, who make decisions that are politically or financially expedient, who act out of self-interest instead of in the best interest of the community as a whole.”

Dickens directly addressed Mayor Michael Preedin, publicly chastising him for allegedly not returning six weeks’ worth of phone calls and emails. Preedin did not respond to any of Dickens’ comments, and moved on to the next speaker.

The rhetoric reflects the heat that has built up around a proposal to significantly renovate the Space Age Fuel gas station at the corner of Cascade Avenue and Pine Street (see “Space Age owner details expansion,” The Nugget, March 1, page 1). That proposal has been elevated from a Type II application to a Type III application, which means it will go before the Sisters Planning Commission in May (see sidebar).

Dickens’ and CATS’ criticism revolves around City Ordinance 497, adopted on July 24, 2019. The ordinance essentially makes law of a staff report that detailed comprehensive amendments to the City’s development code. The omnibus recommendation included sections on accessory dwelling units, public art, childcare centers, short-term rentals (STRs), electric vehicle charging stations, urban area reserves, subdivision phasing, service stations, and more.

Code changes allowed for service stations (previously considered a legal nonconforming use) in the downtown commercial district, with restrictions.

It is the contention of Dickens and CATS that these sweeping changes were rushed and not sufficiently debated, and that there are many unintended consequences.

One of Dickens’ hypotheses in the Space Age controversy is that the City may be influenced by sizable income from the locally imposed gas tax, 3 cents/gallon, which amounted to $203,221 in fiscal year 2021.

His contention that the process resulting in Ordinance 497 was rushed, and lacked public input, does not match the public record. The proposed amendments were reviewed in public workshops held by the Planning Commission on September 20, 2018, November 15, 2018, February 22, 2019, April 18, 2019, and May 16, 2019. Additionally, City Council held a workshop on April 24, 2019 to review the proposed text amendments.

Notices appeared in The Nugget at the time, along with periodic reporting. Minutes of all such meetings were published by the City within days after. Dickens said he did not live in the city at the time, or he would have been at such gatherings.

There is some precedent in handling improvements to gas stations. The Sinclair Oil service station at Cascade and Fir was granted permission to install a canopy over its fuel pumps in 2004, while the City precluded the gas station from owning the next-door convenience store.

In an email to City planner Matt Martin in February, one-time planning commission member Sharlene Weed wrote:

“I was on the Planning Commission when we approved some improvements to the Sinclair gas station. It was a pretty big deal because of the nonconforming use situation. The store could not be associated with the gas station because that would be seen as an expansion. So the store is a separate business, while the gas station operates out of the small shed next to the park. We debated, but ultimately allowed them to build a canopy over the gas pumps. Our chair, Bill Merrill, quit the commission over the decision to allow the store. Even though the store business was separate, he saw it as an expansion of the gas station business and not allowed.”

The Nugget asked Dickens what CATS seeks to accomplish in pressing the City over the Space Age Fuel proposal. He expressed frustration over what he characterizes as lack of engagement from elected officials.

“We’d quit making a ruckus if we’d simply get our calls returned,” he said. “That’d be a good start.”

He said he’d like the City to overturn Ordinance 497 and start over with the benefit of now seeing the consequence of the 2019 action. From CATS’ standpoint, the concerns go beyond the Space Age service station.

In a written statement sent to The Nugget, CATS asserted that, “The City of Sisters made significant changes to the Developmental Codes in 2019 with a 53-page amendment (Ordinance #497). But what does this mean for Sisters? Much less controls over rampant growth and development. This could include denser housing, excessive vacation rentals, new gas stations, big-box stores, and a very different sort of town. Ordinance 497 was not due to state rules and regulations. So what was the purpose behind this amendment? Who instigated it? Who profits from it? Sisters citizens, who care about livability, deserve answers to these concerning questions.”

Mayor Preedin told The Nugget that he has received no emails and only one phone call from Dickens that he has yet to answer due to a family member’s health issues. (Dickens provided The Nugget an email sent January 25 asking the mayor for a conversation).

“I met with Mr. Dickens about eight weeks ago for about an hour, and he’s been a regular at our Council meetings, so I think I’m pretty clear on his concerns,” Preedin said.

“Dickens and others from CATS have in been contact with our staff, whose jobs include having interface with citizens regarding specific concerns or questions,” Preedin added.

Dickens acknowledges prompt response from City staff.

Preedin says he expects as an elected official to hear all manner of debate about growth, and sees as part of his job “keeping it civilized, and moving discussions forward.”

He questions whether “the tactics employed by some speakers who come before Council (are) productive.”

Preedin says that he and Dickens have some things in common. For example, both hold unused STR licenses that are preemptive in keeping neighbors within 250 feet from renting their homes to vacationers.

Preedin is content to let things “run their course,” and sees no need to change the way he does his job.

“Within reason, I am open and available to listen to everybody’s voice,” he said.

 

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