According to community observer E.M. Easterly, the City of Salem has consistently given preferential treatment to developer Richard Fry, who has served on the City of Salem Planning Commission since 2011.
The favorable treatment documented by Easterly occurred at and near the River Valley subdivision on Wallace Road in West Salem, in an area of town that might be in the direct path of the 3rd Bridge being considered this winter by Salem City Council. The approximately 10.3-acre property is owned by Fry and his wife, Stephanie, of Stephanie Fry Construction.
At the October 10 Salem City Council meeting, Easterly presented Council written testimony titled, “Inconsistent Application of Development Standards.”
“A series of bureaucratic actions resulted in subdivision conditions that were never executed, allowed procedures that contradicted the Salem Revised Code, approved lots extending illegally outside the Salem City limits, ignored a surveyed and recorded street right-of-way within the subdivided parcels and approved lots in the original Hope Avenue right-of-away,” said Easterly’s testimony, in part.
Favorable treatment has been documented as early as 2006, Easterly told Salem Weekly, when Fry got approvals for the River Valley Subdivision with homes to be situated directly on top of the City surveyed right-of-way for Hope Avenue, which hadn’t been built yet.
Significantly, a section of city code was circumvented, allowing Fry to save the expense of securing a landslide hazard assessment, and the subdivision plat was approved without obligating Fry to pay for construction of the adjacent section of Marine Drive.
During subsequent phases, and as other city permits have been issued, Fry has apparently been repeatedly excused from paying this cost, which is typically required by city code. All four other developers in similar conditions have had to assume this obligation. There might be an option of Fry’s putting funds into an account for the city to do the Marine Drive construction, but this also has never been formally addressed.
As the years passed, inconsistent treatment was again shown when Fry was “permitted” to begin construction without having a geological assessment. Additionally, although the application approved in 2006 required Fry to obtain an excavation and fill permit prior to his conducting any excavation or filling activities, documentation shows that he proceeded without ever obtaining this permit, except for work in the city right-of way.
“The condition of subdivision approval,” Easterly reports, “was never enforced because city code offers other avenues of approval to address excavation and fill activities. In effect, the approval condition was inappropriately included in the city tentative subdivision approval document, then ignored by the city because city code provisions offer alternative permitting processes for the developer. The error was the inclusion of a condition that was poorly articulated, and then simply ignored because alternative-permitting procedures existed.
Subdivision applicants are responsible for fulfilling the conditions of approval for both UGA Development Permits and Subdivision conditions, as well as all related elements of the Salem Revised Code, says Easterly, though he believes Salem City staff is ultimately responsible for the differences between River Valley Subdivision and other developments in town.
For more than a year, Easterly says, he has attempted to learn from the City of Salem the reasons behind the exceptions given Fry. He describes meeting with frustration from officials who will neither concede nor explain the favoritism he had documented. “Efforts were made to answer my questions,” he says, “until such time that staff sensed my questions were challenging their ‘official’ view.
He says he’s felt ‘heard’ – “as well as avoided.”
“I’m an i-dotter and a t-crosser,” he told Salem Weekly. “I don’t mind if you want to change the rules. But if you don’t change the rules – you should play by them.”
River Valley subdivision has faced unrelated controversies from residents themselves for some time, Salem Weekly has learned. These residents say they were not fully informed of the future of their neighborhood before they made the commitment to buy.
Some note that Fry’s company did not disclose that their homes might be in the direct path of 3rd Bridge construction, even though active proposals have been considered since 2008 to place bridge roadway on their land. Construction for the ‘3rd Bridge’ currently considered by Salem City Council would either actually level homes in the River Valley Subdivision or place them next to a major traffic artery – the bridge – resulting in a devastating loss of home value.
If the 3rd Bridge plan goes through, 15 River Valley subdivision homes will be destroyed.
At the August 27, 2016 City Council meeting, one such resident testified to council that he had recently purchased a small home for his retirement in the subdivision on Twisted River Avenue. Only after investing additional funds to make the home comfortable did he learn it would have to be sold if the 3rd Bridge is built by the plans being considered by council. This would mean he and his wife would be forced out by eminent domain, and would lose much of the value they invested late in life. “It’s not logical to me,” he told council, “why the Planning Commission would allow permits to be sold to build houses…if you already know you are going to proceed forward with the bridge.”
Still other homebuyers complain that Fry’s company did not disclose that an apartment complex would be built in the middle of their neighborhood and would be higher density than normally allowed by code in single-family subdivisions.
In one case, according to documents obtained from Polk County, residents asked the Polk County Circuit Court to stop apartment construction since the first sentence of their CC&R (the Declaration of Covenants, Conditions, and Restrictions, which was executed by Fry in 2007) said the subdivision would have no structure over two stories in height. The residents did not prevail in this matter, though it appears to be under appeal.
Yet other West Salem people say that the signage that advertised the subdivision at time of purchase only showed single-family homes. This pictorial representation misled homebuyers, they argue, into not anticipating an apartment complex.
Easterly believes that past actions cannot be changed, but future ones can have a positive impact. At the conclusion of his remarks to council he recommended that City Council save Salem taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars and “demand that the appearance of bureaucratic favoritism be minimized,” by requiring that one exception Fry appears to enjoys – no contribution towards the construction of Marine Drive – be reversed.
To that end he hopes the City will ask Fry to contribute towards the construction of Marine Drive to the fullest amount required by his 2006 application. “We cannot change what has happened,” he says, but we can ask that the subdivider make a contribution.”