Amanda Weisbrod

The La Grande City Council and members of the city planning, economic development and parks & recreation departments met for a work session Monday evening to learn about the city’s comprehensive plan in regards to state expectations.

Phil Stenbeck, a representative from the Oregon Department of Land Conservation & Development, led the workshop with an hour-long presentation followed by a short discussion. Stenbeck mostly focused on what a comprehensive plan is, where it comes from and how cities and counties in Oregon must follow the state’s comprehensive plan when building their own.

“A comprehensive plan tells the story and the vision of a community,” Stenbeck said. “It’s a document on what you want to do in the city, and (it) is important to the development of a community.”

Overall, a comprehensive plan outlines how the available land and space in a community may be used efficiently and effectively to meet the needs of its citizens. Zoning rules and standards then serve as the guidelines to follow for implementing the vision of the comprehensive plan, according to La Grande City Planner Mike Boquist.

Boquist said while La Grande’s comprehensive plan was created in the 1990s, some of its goals — such as the recommendations for floodplains and hazardous areas — have no need for revisions because they cover subjects that rarely change. However, with more fluid goals, the city planner said it’s important for the council to update the plan to match their vision.

“As things change, we need to focus on those goals,” Boquist said. “Economic development, parks and housing have changed, so we need to update (them).”

To understand the housing needs in La Grande, the city is currently commissioning a housing study, according to Boquist. The city planner said the most recent housing analysis was performed in 2000. He mentioned that even though it’s good practice to hold a study every decade or so, La Grande’s slow growth means it isn’t necessary to have them so often.

“From a housing standpoint, La Grande has been consistent over the past 20 years,” he said. “There’s actually a surplus in residential vacant territory in La Grande, but our latest driver has been a challenge with affordable housing.”

Boquist, while referencing a map of the city on his computer screen, pointed to “a couple hundred” acres of vacant houses and farmland within the city limits that are zoned for multi-family housing (apartments, duplexes). These areas, however, are far from city services and commercial centers — it’s even a long walk to the transit system from these empty farmlands. Boquist said this poses a problem when considering where to build multi-family homes, so the city may explore some zoning changes.

“We’re doing well with available land. It just matters if it’s zoned properly,” he said. “Most of our current housing is single-family, and we have almost none for multi-family. We might need to consider rezoning to allow for apartments and triplexes (to be built closer to services).”

While La Grande’s housing study is in its final draft phase, Boquist said he had the chance to review it Tuesday morning.

“The study is finding every category of housing has a need, but it’s greater with rentals and multi-family homes,” he said. “There’s a sort of a trickle-down effect. Because of the shortage of (higher-end) housing, we have people settling for less because they can’t find what they want.”

Boquist further explained this theory: Because a person or family who can afford a higher priced home can’t find luxury homes or land to build on, they settle for a lower priced house. This pushes people of the income bracket who could afford that house out of the market and so on, until there is hardly any affordable housing left.

“There are people living in RVs and campers or couch-surfing, and they’re technically considered homeless because they are not able to find affordable housing,” he said.

Once the housing analysis is finalized, the city council will use it to inform its revisions for the housing goals of its comprehensive plan, according to Boquist.

In addition to housing, the city council is looking into updating its visions for economic development and parks master planning.

Economic development under a comprehensive plan mainly focuses on “how much land you have and how much land is needed” for businesses to move in and grow, according to Stenbeck.

Boquist said at the city council’s yearly resolution retreat at the beginning of this year, some council members noted they would like to update the city’s economic vision, as La Grande’s current economic development plan was created 10 years ago. Some of those goals include nurturing entrepreneurial growth within the city and encouraging outside businesses to move in.

But because La Grande has seen relatively little growth during the past 20 years Boquist has lived in the area, he said the city will always have to make a conscious effort if it wants to expand.

“We have to make growth happen if we want it to happen,” he said. “We’re always exploring new ways to grow.”

As for the parks master plan goal, La Grande Parks & Recreation Director Stu Spence said he hopes the city can take this opportunity during their comprehensive plan revisions to include a more detailed master plan than what is currently in place.

“We don’t have a full version of a master plan,” he said. “A real master plan is getting community input and then giving them what they need.”

See complete story in Wednesday's Observer