Let Northside have caretaker, RV

On the face of it, the City Council’s decision on Dec. 12 to let stand the eviction of the caretaker at Northside Park, which we reported on page 1 of last week’s issue, sounds solid.

City Manager Ray Towry and council members justify their position by saying they are simply following city codes – codes which, they say, haven’t been adhered to very closely in recent years.

We can certainly appreciate efforts to raise the standard of living conditions in Sweet Home. We notice and affirm landlords and homeowners who have fixed up their rentals and residences in town over the past few years. We recognize that city codes limit certain types of housing in certain areas in part to maintain quality of life for residents of those neighborhoods.

That said, we wonder about the rationale voiced by the council and staff for this move.

The caretaker and two neighbors of the park spoke at last week’s city council meeting, where they heard an earful about how the RV doesn’t meet city code.

Really? The RV is there under a legal conditional use permit approved by the Planning Commission in 2009 – before any councilor but the mayor was serving. City ordinance allows the the city use of an RV by parks caretakers as a conditional use. That distinction was not discussed by anyone during the Dec. 12 meeting.

It wouldn’t meet city code for anyone else, and that’s one of the reasons why City Manager Towry says it needs to go: The city needs to set an example and not violate its own rules. He also said it isn’t best practice, and it isn’t a part of long-term plans for the parks.

So what?

Yes, it’s laudable to say the city must meet the same standards as everyone else and that there should be no exceptions to the rules – even for the city. We agree in principle.

Politicians and bureaucrats often seem to think it’s fine to live by different rules than the rest of us. So it’s refreshing to hear a bureaucrat and elected councilors insist that the government live by the same standards required of everybody else.

But there’s a reason why we have conditional use permits and variances – not just Sweet Home, but in every municipality and county. Sometimes rules don’t fit every situation, and sometimes a use may need additional scrutiny before it’s allowed.

Communities recognize that their zoning rules may not take into account special features on a given property that may significantly reduce its usefulness without some kind of variation. Planning commissioners are appointed and staff professionals are hired to determine when this can happen, on a case-by-case basis. They are empowered to accommodate situations in which the normal rules injure someone’s interests and there is no public inconvenience in making adjustments to change that.

Because the city generally forces those trying to live in RVs on their or others’ property to desist, we recognize that some might feel the city is not playing fair in this case.

But before we go too far down that road, we need to remember why this RV is there in the first place: security and safety in the park.

The Sweet Home Planning Commission looked at this situation in 2009 and found it to be compliant with appropriate city code and approved a conditional use permit for the caretaker’s RV – because Northside Park was a mess.

Last June, when this first came up, a packed council chamber told the city manager about the positive impact the resident caretaker has had on the neighborhood, a presence they said has helped reduce a variety of undesirable activities in the park.

There’s a reason why the traffic of drugs and other unwholesome activities has diminished considerably in the last eight years.

It’s also notable that no one in the neighborhood of Northside Park has publicly objected to the RV. In fact, we heard many residents say they prefer things the way they are.

Sure, the conditional use arrangement may not be “best practice” as a general rule and we appreciate it when our officials live by the same rules they apply to others. But sometimes a “greater good” deserves consideration as well.

Swinging open the gate for drug dealers, after kicking out a couple who have provided 24/7 oversight over the park – is that “best practice?” It may or may not open that gate, but the neighbors think it will. Even if the caretaker has no real impact, the resident caretaker is something that costs the city nothing but generates goodwill with a group of Sweet Home citizens.

The city ought to go ahead and give it to the neighborhood – unless the council wants to invest in a house next door.