Editorial: Good move on downtown height variances

Published Mar 26, 2013 at 05:00AM

In downtown Bend, most property owners can apply for a variance to exceed building height limits — except for a few on Brooks Street.

The City Council has voted 4-3 to change that, despite the misgivings of some that the code revision could mean too-tall buildings will block views of the river.

While we share the concern for preserving the best of downtown, we think the council made the right choice by eliminating this restriction, which applies to just a few properties.

As Mayor Pro Tem Jodie Barram said as she broke the 3-3 council deadlock, the variance process is sufficient to protect the city’s interests.

The city code sets height limits starting at 35 feet at the river and gradually increasing to 70 feet east of the alley between Bond Street and Lava Road. The Brooks Street segment in question is just one block long and includes two vacant lots.

Chuck Arnold, executive director of the Downtown Bend Business Association, said the change would be good for downtown, where onerous regulations may have made some lots difficult to develop.

The vacant lots were at the core of one exchange between councilors, with Mark Capell expressing concern about giving away the chance to “regulate good taste.” Scott Ramsay countered that weed-filled empty lots don’t represent good taste.

Although we doubt anyone would challenge Ramsay’s assertion about the weed-choked lots, good taste is indeed something about which reasonable people can disagree. Is it in bad taste if some day a building near the Pine Tavern is 50 percent taller than the venerable restaurant?

That depends on its design, purpose, what has happened to the surroundings between now and then, and any number of other things we can’t know right now.

Those are among the issues that can be considered in a variance process. As Barram said, the city thoroughly vets such requests, and that provides protection for the community’s interests. That’s far better than a blanket proscription for just a few properties. And that’s why allowing a variance request, not just increasing the height limit, is the right path.

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