City planner goes from visitor to ‘insider’

Gearhart City Planner Carole Connell has been working for the city for about 18 months. She has been a planner for more than 40 years, but Gearhart is among her favorite of the cities she has served.

Although she has worked for more than 40 years in planning and served about two dozen small cities in Oregon, being the city planner for Gearhart is one of Carole Connell’s favorite gigs.

“Gearhart is the most fun of all for me,” she said. “… I was raised here in the summer. I know every inch of this town, at least west of the highway. … It’s just nothing but good memories. Childhood summers in Gearhart – how can you beat that?

“Now I’m in a completely different role here. Now I’m kind of on the inside, meeting the people who live here, not just the people who vacation here, and really enjoying getting much deeper into the town, what it stands for, what’s going on and what the people think. It’s an even more special place now.”

Connell’s great-grandfather Charles Latourette bought a house in Gearhart in 1926. Constructed in 1892, the house is one of the longest-standing structures in the city and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Passed through the generations, the house now is owned by Connell and her sister; their brother and cousins own houses nearby.

“We have a nice little family property there, between D and E (streets), off the Ridge Path, that we all love,” Connell said.

When the city contacted her more than a year and a half ago about contracting her as the city planner, she was excited about the opportunity to serve a community that has served her family so well.

Connell, 62, has been a planner for more than 40 years.

“It’s really a life interest and a career, and to me, it’s exciting that I can have those two things combine,” she said.

As a junior in college, she knew it was the right profession for her. Not only did she love her coursework, but she also found herself inspired by former Gov. Tom McCall, who at the time was developing the statewide land-use planning system.

“Oregon’s system is unique. It was progressive, and it still is kind of a leader in land-use,” she said.

She graduated from the University of Oregon with a bachelor’s degree in geography, as well as a determination to help preserve Oregon’s special environment. Her first job was as an intern for Clatsop County in 1972. The following year, the county hired her to serve as the assistant planner, a job she did for a year. She has worked in an official capacity as a planning director for several municipalities in Oregon, including the cities of Redmond and Sherwood and Deschutes County.

She returned to Portland — where she was born and raised — in 1983 and started her own planning consulting firm, titled Connell PC Associates Inc., in 1996. Her husband, Pat Connell, a real estate broker, is listed as a secondary member, but the firm’s planning side is a one-woman show.

A full-time city planning director tends to work much more than full-time, and Connell no longer wanted to do that. Running her own consulting business gave Connell the flexibility to pursue other interests and spend time with her two sons, Patrick and Austin, now 31 and 25, respectively.

Her firm’s specialty is contracting with small cities in Oregon, although Connell also has tried her hand at private consulting for developers or property owners.

“Over time, my small city niche has become more and more clear,” she said

She really enjoys the sense of community and the people in Oregon’s towns and cities.

“People in every community, they just love their town. There is no perfect place to live, because wherever people live, they love it,” she said.

After starting her own firm, she picked up contracts with a few small cities around Portland, such as Wood Village, North Plains and Gaston. She does some short-term contracts focused on a specific projects, but tends more toward long-term contracts. She currently has contracts with seven cities, the most she has had at a single time in her career.

She didn’t lobby for the job as city planner in Gearhart — especially since the city had someone else serving the position ­— but she always thought it would be fun. Gearhart is like her second home. She visits frequently and was the president of the Gearhart Homeowners Association for a few years in the 1990s.

“I’ve kept an interest here and I love Gearhart,” she said. “ … I’m delighted to be helping the city at this point in my career.”

Land-use planning is multi-faceted and features environmental, economic and social implications, Connell noted.

“I like the breadth of the subject and I like the people involved and I like trying to represent the best interests of a place,” Connell said. “And that’s really what I do: I facilitate community development, striving for the best possible outcome for the community.”

Land-use issues are consistent throughout the state, but the details change from city to city, and Connell tries to be in tune to the specifics of the different places where she works. Even in cases where she believes a certain course of action is the right one, she is willing to back off and allow communities to choose a direction that fits their specific culture and vision.

“I absolutely succumb to whatever the community wants after giving them the best information I can possibly give them to make that decision,” she said.

Besides enjoying career, Connell also values nature, travel, and her family and friends. Both of her sons live in Portland. Connell also has a grandchild. She is happy the Gearhart beach house will see a sixth generation.

“Part of the excitement is that here is another generation that gets to grow up loving Gearhart, Ore.,” she said.

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