Morningside Neighborhood Association and other Salem citizens were outraged by an April 3 vote by Salem’s Planning Commission to approve conventional apartment blocks to be built within a unique area set aside for sustainable development. The Association says the development does not comply with a single one of the special requirements for such an area, as defined by the City of Salem itself.

The plot in question is 43 acres of land in South Salem, contained in the parcel where the Fairview Training Center for the developmentally disabled used to be. The acreage was established by the City to be the “Fairview Sustainable Community” and specifically required to grow greener and more innovatively than the rest of town. One portion of the Fairview area, the Pringle Creek Community, has won several national awards for sustainability.

“It is intended to be a new kind of neighborhood for those who live and work in Salem,” says Geoffrey James, Land Use committee chair of Morningside Neighborhood Association. He describes Fairview as a place meant to “foster innovative land development practices… protect nature and develop new techniques for integrating natural and built environments.”

The special codes Salem City Council adopted for this section are accessible on the City’s site in Chapter 143C of the Salem Revised Codes (SRC.) The laws require details such as improved protection of open spaces and greater housing and transportation options, to name two.

Says James Santana, Board member of Morningside Neighborhood Association, “The plan was blessed by the Governor and had extensive community input, and is the one parcel of land in the City of Salem where there is a standard beyond code.“

However, in January, Simpson Hills, LLC applied for permission to develop about 43 acres into more than 400 apartment units. Simpson Hills said it met Fairview’s special guidelines and by the time the proposal came to the Planning Commission on March 20th, City planning administrators Glenn Gross and Jason Richling already recommended approval.

But the Morningside Neighborhood Association didn’t agree. Morningside issued the following statement: “Because so many Fairview Master Plan policies and Standards are not being followed, the applicant (should) be asked to bring these plans into conformance with the policies contained in the Fairview Master Plan…”

While James says his group would welcome innovation suited to a sustainable area, “what is proposed are 400+ apartment units, typical in large blocks with big parking lots.”

His group created a checklist of 32 policies suggested by the original plan that describe sustainable guidelines. It contends that Simpson Hills meets not even one of them.

But in preparation for the second April 3 Planning Commission hearing, the City’s Gross prepared yet another recommendation, again assuring the Planning Commission that the project met the stringent requirements for mixed use.

In the April 3 meeting, the Planning Commission vote was 4-1 to approve the Simpson Hills LLC development.

Five commissioners were present: Nathan Levin, Rich Fry, Darr Goss, David Fox and James Lewis. Only Fox both spoke against the development and voted against it. He said “it seems like a pretty grand departure from the intent… of the Fairview master plan.”

Levin and Fry made statements critical of the development – but voted in favor of it. Goss spoke in favor of it and voted for it. Lewis stated reluctant ambivalent support, and voted in favor of it.

One observer reports being “dumbfounded.” Another said, “It’s almost as if [the Planning Commissioners] recognized a futility in contending with the City” – with City of Salem planning administrators such as Gross or those who direct him. This source wonders what might have been consequences for the Planning Commission if it actually voted down Simpson Hill’s plan; was it something they wanted to avoid?

James, an architect who once chaired the Salem Planning Commission himself, suggests a simpler theory. “The rule is that one member (of the 7) can be from the real estate industry. Currently, the chair is in the industry. Currently several others are real estate folks or from the development industry, and I include real estate appraisers in that. So, because of that weighted make-up, a development proposal always tends to get approved if it just meets the basic zone code requirements.”

Whatever the reason for the Commission’s approval, Santana laments it. He admires the vision of sustainable development and fears it “is at total risk of being dismantled if this development goes through; every subsequent development will then be held to this same low standard of interpretation.”

A City Council Public Hearing on the issue has been set for May 14th.

The minutes from the April 3 Planning Commission meeting where the development was approved, including statements from each of the five commissioners, are online. City  administrator Gross’s reports recommending the development are also online. To those who contact Morningside Neighborhood Association, the group will make available its 32-item checklist of where it believes the Simpson Hills proposal failed (as well as “Four Positive Suggestions” they believe would make it more sustainable.)

Morningside encourages all who support Fairview Stainability and strict adherence to its Master Plan to speak at the May 14 meeting or write their City Councilor.