The site of the proposed Kuebler Gateway Shopping Center in South Salem.(Troy Brynelson/Salem Reporter)

A new Costco and accompanying shopping center are on their way to Keubler Boulevard, after Salem Council voted overwhelmingly to approve a site plan for the project that’s rankled the neighborhood over possible traffic impacts.

The council’s 8-to-1 vote caps a years-long debate over the newest location for the box retailer with councilor Jackie Leung casting the sole nay vote. While the council acknowledged neighborhood concerns, they said their hands were tied by a council decision in 2007 that changed the zoning on the parcel from residential to commercial.

PacTrust Realty, a Portland developer, has sought to build a nearly 200,000-square-foot shopping center on a vacant lot in south Salem for more than a decade but has faced pushback from residents who say the development will greatly increase neighborhood traffic and remove white oaks during development.

An attorney for the city, Jeffrey Condit, said PacTrust has a vested right to develop the property based as a result of the zoning change. He said the current council can’t revisit the conditions of the zoning-change approval as part of the site plan review.

“Applicant does have to obtain site plan approval and demonstrate compliance with the applicable criteria. However, those criteria, including the tree regulations, cannot be applied to deny the shopping center outright or require applicant to reduce the size of the shopping center, because the proposed shopping center is within the size limits vested by the 2007 Decision,” Condit wrote to City Attorney Dan Atchison on Sept. 18.

During Monday’s meeting councilor Chris Hoy said after the council denied PacTrust’s application for a Costco store, retail fueling station and four retail buildings in 2018, Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals reversed the city’s decision. Under ex parte rules, councilors weren’t able to discuss specifics of the application with the public during the meeting.

On Aug. 14, 2019 the Land Use Board of Appeals said the city had not properly addressed whether PacTrust has a "vested right" to develop the property after it spent more than $3 million on nearby road improvements and rezoning the field between Battle Creek Road and 27th Avenue. That same day, PacTrust Realty filed a suit in federal court seeking nearly $10 million in damages.

“So as much as I’d like to be able to again listen to neighbors and not approve this so-called shopping center, the dye was cast in 2007 and we have no flexibility to change it now,” Hoy said.

Other councilors expressed similar sentiments, begrudgingly approving the plan.

The council received more than 500 pages of public comment about the project with most asking the council to uphold its earlier denial.

“The city has routinely approved random development on a piecemeal basis, the cumulative effect of which serves to load Kuebler,” Dan Reid, who lives in the ward representing southeast Salem, wrote to councilors.

”Little consideration has gone into long term planning," he continued. "The council needs to step back and initiate a long-term study of the traffic needs of south Salem for the next 30 years. Kuebler cannot be widened; it is a constraint we must live with. With or without Costco, Salem has another major traffic problem because foresight was absent.”

PacTrust attorney Wendie Kellington said eight white oaks need to be moved to build the shopping center, a task company plans to take on at a cost of $450,000 or more.

Opponents have argued that the initial project that was proposed 13 years ago misrepresented the scale of what neighbors were expecting. In a rebuttal letter dated Sept. 10 Kellington addressed that grievance:

“As a final point, opponents’ arguments fail to appreciate the fact that millions of dollars have been spent to mitigate for traffic impacts significantly greater than what will result from the proposed project. Just how much smaller of a shopping center are the applicants expected to propose, when they have already paid for a larger shopping center than the one that they intend to build? Why would an applicant submit a proposal for a commercial retail shopping center it knows its anchor store will refuse to occupy? Nobody wants a failed shopping center anywhere in the city,” she wrote. 

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