Stop Your Engines 

Neighbors Gripe about Portland Raceway Noise

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THEY CAME STONE-FACED, the leaders of the Kenton Neighborhood Association, bearing tales of woe. Babies kept awake at night. Backyard picnics ruined. Closed windows on warm summer nights—no matter the cool breeze blowing outside.

And they had a villain: the Portland International Raceway.

A survey conducted this year by Kenton neighbors—and presented last month to Portland City Council—has reopened the age-old issue of noise in North Portland, and whether the city's iconic racetrack is making too much of it.

According to answers from 323 Kenton residents, a majority (52 percent) find racetrack noise annoying or disruptive. And while neighbors explicitly say they don't want to close the track—technically a city park that pays for itself—they do say they want it to quiet down. But their demand raises a question: If the Portland International Raceway had to put further lids on noise, would the track even be worth keeping around?

"It's hard to say," says Ryan Pittel, who served on the neighborhood committee exploring the noise issue. "It's a good question. It would take quite a bit of looking into."

But as much as this debate is about decibels, it's also about a neighborhood that's in flux.

The raceway has been in Kenton longer than all but a handful of homeowners. It opened in 1961, rising from the bones of the Vanport Flood. It's been around so long that the last major noise battle over noise was fought in 1989. In that fight, strict monitoring was imposed, with a cap placed on the number of events allowed to exceed citywide noise codes.

Since then, Kenton has changed dramatically—lifted by a surge of new homeowners and city redevelopment cash. Angela Moos, the chairwoman of the neighborhood association, told the council last month that 70 percent of her group's board have lived there less than six years.

An analysis of nearly 2,500 property titles in Kenton, crunched for the Mercury by real estate agent Charles Turner using raw data from Chicago Title, shows that some 80 percent changed hands within the past 11 years. More than half changed hands within the past six years.

Pittel points to the millions Portland has spent livening up the neighborhood's main drag, Denver Avenue. Real estate experts say the boom has been led by younger homeowners, as in couples with small children and an interest in neighborhood politics.

Of course, all those new buyers probably should have known a track was in their midst—but that fault line is driving the debate. According to the survey, those who complained most about the noise have lived in Kenton, on average, for less than 10 years.

The handful of residents who said they never hear noise from the track average some 28 years in the neighborhood. Respondents who deemed the noise tolerable averaged about 16 years of residence.

"The city is putting a lot of cash in this neighborhood," Pittel says. "There's obviously an investment, so let's try to protect it."

Pittel said neighbors have received positive signals from Housing Commissioner Nick Fish and Mayor Sam Adams, a Kenton resident himself.

The goal, Pittel says, is to see if the racetrack can build on some of its current, quieter offerings, like electric car racing or auto swap meets, and invite more neighbors in.

"None of those things keep the track alive," says Mark Wigginton, who manages the raceway for the city. "It's a business."

Drag races and other traditional events make up the track's lifeblood, according to Wigginton. A 2004 study commissioned by the city found the track contributes $45 million to Multnomah County's economy.

Wigginton also was nonplussed by the noise complaints, saying the track is no louder than "any other industrial noise site next to a residential site." A 2008 noise study found the track was quieter than nearby train horns or truck traffic.

There is one potential change afoot for the track, Wigginton and city officials confirmed. The Portland Police Bureau is interested in paving over an unused portion of the track and building a new vehicle training course. Officials will explore adding classrooms and an indoor shooting range.

"It's just an idea," says Lieutenant Kelli Sheffer, a police spokeswoman. "No one's laid out how this is going to work."

Whatever happens, neighbors just say they want to be involved.

"It's never been a give and take," says Pittel. "We've never been able to coexist together. Our next step is to find some compromises."

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