She's left her mark on Central Oregon

Hearings officer Karen Green makes tough calls on land use

Christine Metz / The Bulletin /

Published Dec 30, 2006 at 04:00AM

Hearings officer Karen Green took one look at the young couple who had an application pending for a 10-unit subdivision in southeast Bend and knew some explaining had to be done.

”I see the puzzled faces and understand why,” she said to the couple sitting in the front row of the hearing room. Then, she launched into the details of city's newly adopted development code and how the changes affected the couple's plan under consideration.

”Is that sufficiently confusing?” she asked at the end.

As the city of Bend's primary hearings officer, Green's job is to decide if development plans stand up to the city's complicated set of land use laws.

Green has presided over hearings that packed hundreds of angry residents into board rooms. She has heard thousands of hours of testimony, read countless documents and handed down as many as 500 decisions for the cities of Bend and Redmond and Deschutes County.

Much of what Green decides has helped shape the way Bend looks today.

She ruled that a Wal-Mart Supercenter could not be built in northeast Bend and that more cell towers could go on top of Awbrey Butte. And in 1999, she denied a development that sparked the creation of a consortium of developers who joined together to do major road improvements on the west side of Bend. The Bulletin participated in the consortium.

”With respect to land use issues, she holds the most powerful position in the city,” said Debi Curl, a local resident who has for years fought against new towers on Awbrey Butte. Because the Bend City Council rarely agrees to hear appeals, Green's decisions often are the last stop in the planning process before the state's Land Use Board of Appeals. In many instances, she makes the final ruling.

”I believe the City Council has delegated the power to that position,” Curl said.

Green doesn't see her role as all that powerful, saying she is just ”one cog in a big wheel.”

Green hears the land use cases that planning departments believe are too controversial, legal in nature or complicated to decide internally by staff. She also hears cases in which staff's decision has been appealed, or applications that under city code are automatically referred to a hearings officer, including amendments to the city's comprehensive plan or zone changes.

Much of the work is first done by city staff, who prepare a report on the application and make their own recommendations to Green. The developer submitting the application also must provide information, such as traffic studies, and neighborhood associations and residents who might oppose the development also provide documents.

”The decisions aren't coming out of thin air,” Green said. ”They are based on heavy lifting from a lot of different people.”

The case Green heard in late November, which drew about five people and took little more than an hour, was unremarkable in comparison to other cases Green has taken on in her 10-year career as a hearings officer in Central Oregon.

Dressed in a dark gray jacket with a white turtleneck and a scarf with shades of autumn draped over her shoulders, Green sat in the center of the dais usually frequented by Bend City Council members. A cup of Starbucks, maps and the city's development code in a three-inch thick binder were scattered before her. Between taking notes as people gave testimony at the podium, Green propped her hand up against her cheek, tilted her chair toward the speaker and listened.

Although the city of Bend has a couple of different hearings officers, Green is the first in line to take cases because she is one of two hearings officers who doesn't represent clients in private land use practices.

Recently, Green and other hearings officers reached an agreement with the city to be compensated on an hourly rate, rather than on a flat fee. The hourly rate is $250.

Green is ”basically an administrative judge that applies the city code to specific land use cases,” said Dale Van Valkenburg, who has worked with Green on many levels. For the past few years, Van Valkenburg was a planner for the city of Bend and is now a land use consultant with Brooks Resources.

”She has very high standards, is very professional. She doesn't take a lot of guff in her courtroom and has a presence there that is pretty intimidating so people take her very seriously,” Van Valkenburg said.

From Rajneeshees to post-communist Poland

An attorney by trade, Green, 56, a native of Southern California, unmarried and has one cat, has spent her entire career in the public sector.

”You don't get paid very well, but you have a whole lot more influence,” Green said.

With a bachelor's degree from the University of Oregon and a law degree from Willamette University, Green's first job as an attorney was working with the Oregon Department of Justice, handling appeals to state and federal courts.

She later became the chief counsel for the state's Child Services Division, a job she describes as ”really stressful, very challenging.”

In 1985, when the population signs on the city limits read 18,000, Green moved to Bend to take a job as one of the attorneys for Deschutes County.

At the time, Bend was at the end of a recession and ”it was just a lot of empty storefronts,” Green said.

Just as growth was taking off, Green became the director of the county's Community Development Department. She spent five years in the position, trying to hire the staff needed to catch up with the growth that was occurring in Central Oregon.

In 1993, Green said she was ”ready for a really big change.”

At age 43, she left the Community Development Department and headed for Poland as a Peace Corps volunteer. Living in Tychy, a small south central Polish city near the Czech border and in the coal mining region, Green focused on economic development and building local democracy in a country that was just beginning to test the free market and coming out of communist rule.

The experience was life changing, Green said, as she watched local governments learn how to become demo- cracies.

”It was like going back 200 years to watch the beginning of our country,” she said.

After her stint with the Peace Corps, Green returned to Bend in 1994 and started a business as a land use consultant. Within six months she was doing work as a hearings officer.

At around the same time, Green started a career path of a different kind. Volunteering at the High Desert Museum since 1992, Green worked her way up to a staff position at the museum managing the interpretative program.

Over the next decade, balancing what some might view as almost two full-time jobs, Green continued to be a hearings officer and worked at the museum, where she eventually took on the role of long-range planner.

At the museum, Green's work as an interpreter focused on ways to educate visitors about the exhibits. She recruited and trained volunteers to do public presentations and designed exhibits such as the Birds of Prey Center, mustang corral and the late 19th century homestead, museum President Forrest Rodgers said.

She helped tell stories about museum exhibits that Rodgers said were ”general enough for the lay person to understand, but accessible enough so people with specific interest could ask questions of greater depth.”

The role required Green to do research, Rodgers said, primarily talking to people, but also using books, journals and documents.

”What Karen was able to do was help the volunteers and staff engage visitors to open their eyes, allowing them to open their minds and create opportunities to ask questions,” Rodgers said.

One of the most legendary legacies Green left at the museum was a personal tale of a run-in with the Rajneeshees who she told to staff and volunteers to demonstrate how a story can bring deeper meaning to an everyday artifact.

Green began the presentation by showing the trainees a red plate and cup, which were the Rajneeshees' informal china.

She then launched into a story about how she came across the cult in the mid-1980s while working as an attorney for the Department of Justice. The Raj-neeshees, a religious sect that lived in a commune just outside of Antelope, are probably best known for poisoning salad bars with salmonella at restaurants in The Dalles. The group also brought in thousands of homeless people to sway Wasco County Commission elections.

As an attorney, Green was representing the state's electrical board in a civil case against the Rajneeshees. The state found hundreds of instances where the Rajneeshees had installed electrical appliances without permits or licensed electricians.

She told the trainees that during the several days of the trial she became sick and ended up in the emergency room. The trial was delayed three or four days until Green was able to return.

Months later, as the commune was falling apart and different members were entering into plea bargains, someone admitted to poisoning Green and one of the witnesses during the trial. The drug, Green said, was an anti-psychotic called Haldol that was slipped into her glass of water.

The red plate and cup were given to Green by her co-workers before leaving the Department of Justice as a gag gift.

”What she did was a very brave thing by sharing something deeply personal,” Rodgers said. ”The fact that everybody who sat in those programs remembers that and remembers the association with Karen is an indicator of how powerful that was.”

In 2006, Green was recognized for her talents by the National Association for Interpretation, which named her as one of two Master Interpretive Managers in the country.

Green, who left the museum in April to become a full-time hearings officer, said the two jobs drew on very different skill sets.

”A hearings officer's work is very cognitive. You work in isolation, sitting at the computer researching,” Green said. ”At the High Desert Museum you deal with the public, with large staff, large groups of volunteers. It's more creative.”

Rodgers sees a link between the two jobs.

”This is a woman with an uncommon set of skills in land use work and who has found dramatically different ways to pursue a passion and belief,” Rodgers said. ”The passion she has about the landscape and smart decision making about the landscape and commitment and belief in helping tell the story.”

Life as a hearings officer

Green describes the land use hearings process - which has rules on the evidence submitted, how to proceed and its decorum - as less formal than court proceedings, but more formal than a typical public meeting.

”Most people understand that and respect the process,” she said.

Crucial to her job, Green said, is remaining neutral.

One of the biggest misconceptions residents have about the land use process, Green said, is knowing what points are relevant for argument.

”It's not a popularity contest; it's a standards-based system,” Green said. ”If you meet the standards, you get approved, even if everyone else doesn't like what is approved.”

All too often, residents are prompted to learn the city's land use system because they are opposed to a nearby development.

”When your only contact comes with emotionally charged issues, it is not the best time to learn the land use system,” Green said.

The public can become more effective, Green said, if they take the time to learn about the land use system prior to getting involved in cases.

”They will be better prepared when the time comes,” she said.

Leslie Conley, an Awbrey Butte resident who helped lead the charge against a Unicel calling center locating in her neighborhood, said it was daunting to appear before a hearings officer. Her group hired a lawyer to help with the process.

”I actually got a lot of information beforehand - that you can't stand up in front of her and give opinions and be emotional. It's the points of laws that she is interested in looking at,” Conley said.

While Green's job is to decide if the plan meets the city code, it's not as easy as it sounds. Different sides can submit conflicting evidence, and experts argue different points.

For the applicant or resident opposing the development, the crux of the process comes during the hearing. However, for Green, it is after the hearing that the true work begins.

After the testimony is given and the hearing closes, the record is left open, allowing both sides to submit more information for Green to consider.

She reads through the large record of documents - sometimes stacked feet high - that the city, applicants and the plan's opposition submit. She also reviews case law, previous decisions by the state's land use board and even her own decisions. The decisions she writes can exceed 100 pages as she gives her findings and detailed reasoning behind those findings, including evidence gathered from both sides.

Working alone, the process to write the decision could take days to weeks, Green said.

While a planner at the city, Van Valkenburg said that Green didn't always follow the recommendations he made on projects.

”You don't always agree with the conclusion, but you don't argue with the logic,” Van Valkenburg said. ”It's clear why she made the decision.”

Van Valkenburg said Green's writing style in her decisions mirrors that of the referees on the state Land Use Board of Appeals. She states the evidence, her thought process and how the evidence does or doesn't meet the city's code.

Even with the decision issued, Green's job might not be done. If one of the sides in the case doesn't agree with the decision, it can be appealed first to the Bend City Council and then the Land Use Board of Appeals. If a referee at the Land Use Board of Appeals doesn't agree with Green's decision, it can be sent back to her.

During more than 10 years and as many as 500 decisions, Green said she has seen between 10 to 20 dozen remands.

”It's helpful. I don't take it personally,” she said.

Ann Wheeler, who has been active in several major land use decisions in Central Oregon, said as a member of a grass-roots organization opposing Wal-Mart she was happy when she heard that Green would be the hearings officer to decide if Wal-Mart should build a 216,000-square-foot store in northeast Bend.

”Not because we thought she would give us the answer we wanted. We never thought there was any bias, and she is strictly by the book,” Wheeler said. ”We also knew she was capable and willing to make hard decisions. To say no to big huge development if the law didn't support it. She wouldn't be swayed by the fact that it was a big corporate entity.”

Wheeler said she didn't agree with Green's decision to issue a statement before the public testimony asking speakers to focus on just land use issues and not the store's business practices. However, she still gives Green high praise.

”I certainly think she is very talented in her position, has a special gift and is incredibly patient,” Wheeler said. ”She is so calm. She listens and doesn't get involved. She is so professional.”

At the start of the Wal-Mart hearing, Wheeler said Green clearly explained what the ground rules were. Wheeler did say it was necessary in the Wal-Mart case to hire an attorney and transportation expert to address the points of law in the case.

”It's clear that the most technical and most directly on point, direct legal issues get the bulk of her attention,” Wheeler said.

As the community has grown, so has the public involvement in land use hearings, Green said. More input makes for a better end product, Green said, but it also makes her job more challenging as she has more sides to consider and more documents to review.

”I am really encouraged by the fact that the average citizen gets to come to a hearing, write a letter and say something. That is what the system is all about,” Green said.