The letter arrived, unsolicited, and read like campaign literature.
"While Measure 37 may provide some property owners with compensation or enable owners to avoid restrictive regulations, you should be aware that these potential benefits can be lost if the property is transferred."
The letter from a local law firm--one better known for its progressive ideals and community spirit than for attempts to eviscerate land use laws--goes on to tantalize property owners with the prospect of cashing in on Measure 37: "Regardless of your views as to the merits of Measure 37, now is the appropriate time to assess development possibilities for your property."
When Measure 37 passed this past election, environmentalists braced for an onslaught of claims, fearing the measure would punch holes into decades of planning. Under 37, which took effect on December 2, landowners can claim state money if they can prove they suffered a loss of property value from regulations such as wetland protections. The governmental agency has the choice to either pay up, or roll over and allow development.
Not only do Measure 37 claims offer potential financial windfalls for property owners, they also present a cash cow for the law firms that represent those claims--a realization that Portland-based Tonkon Torp is trying to cash in on.
After two weeks, there have only been two claims filed with the City of Portland. Of those, one is currently in limbo for incorrectly submitted paperwork, while the other includes the laughable claim of $10,000 for the property-owner's pain and suffering.
But, if attorneys at Tonkon Torp have their way, this respite may simply be the calm before the storm. Tonkon Torp is one of Portland's leading law firms--and, ironically, one often associated with protecting land use laws.
But two weeks before governmental agencies began accepting Measure 37 claims, the real estate attorneys at Tonkon Torp sent a mass mailing to select property owners. That letter urged those property owners to consider what Measure 37 claims they may have.
In response, at least one angry recipient, Ben Kaiser, contacted Ted Herzog, an attorney from Tonkin Torp. Kaiser is a local developer and opposes Measure 37. In his email, Kaiser pointed out that Oregon State Bar rules prohibit soliciting business from non-clients. Kaiser also expressed his disgust that Tonkon Torp was, in his view, trying to drum up Measure 37 litigation.
In response, Herzog tried to soothe Kaiser with promises that the attorneys at Tonkon Torp had also voted against Measure 37.
But this did not sit well with Kaiser, who fired off another email to Herzog: "Explaining to me that you 'believe all of the members of our Real Estate Practice Group voted against Measure 37,' yet then proceeding to use Measure 37 to elicit work for your company seems extremely hypocritical to me."
This perceived hypocrisy is underscored by Tonkon Torp's public image. On their website, the firm boasts about their "community roots." Click on a heart-shaped icon and up pops a list of organizations they work with. At the top of that list is 1,000 Friends of Oregon, the state's preeminent land use think tank.
In his email, Kaiser continued to assail the Tonkon Torp law firm. "Wouldn't it be fantastic if the firms who did not believe in Measure 37, such as yourselves, did everything in their power to defend, not attack, the present land use laws that make Portland and Oregon so 'livable'?" Kaiser added, "It is very short sighted to make a dollar today on an issue that will make our great State, and by association, Tonkon Torp, so much less appealing tomorrow."
When contacted by the Mercury, Herzog initially said he was unaware of the firm's recruitment of Measure 37 claims. When told that the Mercury had copies of emails he had sent, he said someone else would need to return the phone call. The firm's marketing director eventually called to explain that "it's not unusual to write an update when the law changes." She claimed that the firm received only one compliant about the letter, but also many compliments. If you want to complain, Jeffrey Keeney, chair of Tonkon's real estate practice group, may be contacted at: "firstname.lastname@example.org".