City planner Aaron Panko speaks at Salem City Council Monday night. Public testimony lasted nearly three hours in the debate over whether to approve a shopping center in South Salem. (Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

Determined Salem neighbors fought the $100 billion company Costco to a standstill Monday night, convincing the Salem City Council to turn away a proposed south Salem shopping center that had been more than a decade in the making.

The Kuebler Gateway Shopping Center, a nearly 200,000-square-foot plaza, was to be anchored by a Costco Wholesale and include four retail shell buildings and a 30-pump gas station. City planners in October approved the site plan proposed by developers.

For nearly three hours before a packed city council chambers, residents testified that the latest plan was not what the city envisioned in 2006 when the city council rezoned the pastoral field for commercial construction. The project had been tabled by the recession.

Chambers were so full with people planning to speak for or against that extra chairs lined the back walls. Eventually, city staff set up an overflow area in the nearby Salem Public Library where the meeting was aired on a TV.

Many opponents argued the project today would be a magnet for traffic around the region, with shoppers clogging roads near the proposed site along Kuebler Boulevard, between 27th Avenue and Battle Creek Road, and spilling into neighborhoods.

Sides also dug into the validity of a traffic analysis done the for the project and whether a grove of Oregon white oak trees should be preserved.

Kathleen Kercheski, a neighbor, said that the project felt like it was designed to solve congestion problems for customers to Costco’s current location on Hawthorne Avenue Southeast at the expense of others.

“As a neighbor, that’s our life. We’re there every day, every night, all year long, for hopefully decades to come. It’s our life. It’s our liveability,” she said. “We don’t want the fumes from the fueling station, we don’t want the noise day and night while semis are coming and going. We don’t want the trees to be decimated and replaced with a 30-foot-high building. We don’t want the traffic that’s going to ruin our neighborhood feel.”

Glenn Baly, who chairs the South Gateway Neighborhood Association that encompasses the site, said neighbors were on board with a quaint shopping center. The plan today, he said, was a regional complex.

“The key issue here is what was promised is not what’s being proposed,” Baly said. “What you have before you today is a massive warehouse and a 30-pump industrial fueling station that would draw customers from Marion and Polk counties.”

But the decision ultimately rested on definitions in city code.

Salem planners and PacTrust, the Portland firm proposing the project, contended the project still fit within the city definitions of a “shopping center.” Meanwhile, a “regional” shopping center was defined as having at least 300,000 square feet.

Wendie Kellington, a land use attorney representing PacTrust, noted the company has spent more than $3 million improving roads nearby for the development. She said the plaza always had the potential to be anchored by a big retailer, so long as it remained under 300,000 square feet.

“Something small is not what the city council approved” in 2006, she said.

Councilors were not convinced, voting down the project 5-3.

In his final meeting as a councilor, Steve McCoid, who presides over the ward where the shopping center would be built, motioned to turn the project away.

“This is a tough one for me. I’ve been in business my whole life, but I also represent Ward 4. I’ve walked those streets, so I’m pretty familiar with where this is being built and why it’s being built,” he said. “I know what a regional store is and that’s a regional store and it doesn’t belong in a neighborhood like that.”

Mayor Chuck Bennett and councilors Brad Nanke and Jim Lewis voted against the motion. Councilor Cara Kaser was absent.

Bennett opposed McCoid’s motion, although he didn’t support the project. He said the decision facing councilors was a land use issue and councilors had to rule by the definitions. He said he thought PacTrust would win an appeal to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.

“This isn’t something I thought was a fabulous idea — to rezone that land. Overall I didn’t like it,” he said. “But once you go down this road, I’m really worried you make these U-turns and you’re going to find yourselves in constant legal trouble.”

Bennett also said the council had “an ability to be wildly inconsistent.”

“Suddenly we’re moved by traffic on Kuebler, but I can’t get anyone to care about Commercial, or Liberty, or Marion, or Center, or on the bridge or Wallace. All of a sudden that’s just perception, is what I’m told by members,” he said. “And I’m really concerned by this.”

Have a tip? Contact reporter Troy Brynelson at 503-575-9930, troy@salemreporter.com or @TroyWB.