Last week, the long-simmering fight over a possible sale of part of Mt. Tabor Park boiled over into the public arena. Two city commissioners declared the deal to be "off the table," but Warner Pacific College, the tiny Christian school that wants the land, isn't taking no for an answer.
According to Warner Pacific, officials from the college approached the parks and recreation bureau late last year to discuss a sale of the Mt. Tabor maintenance yard—the school wants to expand, but has run out of room on its current site adjacent to the yard. Warner Pacific says the idea had the support of several neighborhood association leaders.
So, in August, Warner Pacific President Jay Barber and Parks Bureau Director Zari Santner signed a "memorandum of understanding" (MOU)—a nonbinding agreement that laid out the terms of a possible sale of the land. The school's legal counsel on the MOU was former City Commissioner Jim Francesconi.
But when news of the MOU leaked, neighbors and other city activists flipped, shouting that the city was trying to sell off public land without any sort of public process.
To say the least, it was politically embarrassing for City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who heads the parks bureau. But Saltzman and his city hall staff say the MOU was signed without his knowledge, and that he had no intention of selling the land without public involvement. At press time, Santner was out of town and unavailable for comment, but Lisa Turpel, a parks bureau manager, said that it is standard operating procedure for the bureau to inform the commissioner (in this case, Saltzman) in situations as big as a potential land sale. Although she couldn't say unequivocally that Saltzman was or wasn't informed of the MOU, she was surprised that Saltzman says he was kept out of the loop.
(Saltzman's office maintains he knew nothing about the deal. Santner, though, wasn't disciplined for her apparent breach of Saltzman's authority.)
Plus, insiders say, it's not like the MOU was a secret. Barber announced the agreement to a crowd of 1,500 people on August 25, the day after the paperwork was signed. And Mayor Tom Potter met with Barber on August 18 to discuss plans for the school's growth. "It's a great campus and I'm looking forward to working with you folks to [help you] grow to your real potential," Potter said at the meeting, according to Warner Pacific's newsletter.
Insiders say that while the MOU wasn't a binding sale agreement, it was a politically naïve move that has had predictable results—a backlash against the school, the parks department, and even Saltzman.
By last week, the damage was done, and both Saltzman and Commissioner Randy Leonard declared the deal was dead.But Warner Pacific isn't accepting that answer.
The college only has around 350 students—it's so small that its publicist is also the head coach of the women's basketball team. But it has dreams of nearly quadrupling the size of its student body, and can't do that without picking up the Mt. Tabor yard. In a letter to Saltzman and Leonard, Barber threatened to move the college out of town if it doesn't get its way.
Short of buying the land outright, Warner Pacific would settle for a long-term lease. In a response to Barber's letter, Leonard said he is "not supportive of selling or leasing any of the Mt. Tabor Park property to any entity under any conditions." Saltzman, on the other hand, is still open to the lease idea, but his office says the responsibility of convincing Mt. Tabor neighbors will rest squarely on the shoulders of Warner Pacific College.
Despite the backlash, it may not be difficult to convince neighbors to buy into the lease plan. The Warner site is zoned for high-density residential properties—if the school moves, it will likely be replaced with condos or apartments, which might not sit well with neighbors or parks advocates.