The coronavirus pandemic changed the way people lived and businesses operated in Gearhart in 2020. The elementary school closed and the Pacific Way shut its restaurant doors after 32 years.
Even the post office changed, with two single-file entry lines, plastic barriers and 6-foot distancing markers. Plans for the proposed new firehouse simmered but won’t come before the public until 2021, when new Mayor Paulina Cockrum leads the council. And finally, in Gearhart, how many elk is too many?
Built in 1949 and an icon at the corner of Pacific Way at the city’s entrance, Gearhart Elementary was one of four elementary schools sold by the Seaside School District as students moved to a new campus outside of the tsunami inundation zone.
Originally listed at $1.9 million, the school district lowered the price to $1.2 million earlier this year before authorizing the sale in August at $750,000.
Scofi Gearhart, an Oregon LLC, purchased the property for $500,000, which included a $100,000 educational grant to the seller in addition to the $400,000 purchase price.
The managing members, Robert S. “Bob” Morey and Timi Morey, are Gearhart residents.
Uses for the site are restricted, designed for community or educational use. Any planned development would need to go through the public rezoning process.
Plans will not be rushed, Morey said. “We will be collaborating with the entire community of Gearhart as we determine the best long-term uses of the former elementary school property.”
Even before the pandemic, the City Council tasked the Planning Commission to look at ways to stimulate existing businesses and bring new ones to downtown. The process began in January 2019 with a call to look at the commercial downtown zoning code and continued through this year.
The drive took special urgency as businesses sought to expand options for customers at the same time withstanding increased costs associated with the pandemic.
The goal, City Planner Carole Connell said, in a series of meetings throughout the year, is to modernize uses in downtown to allow current and future businesses more options to increase revenue. While restricting chain stores or franchises, the amended code expands descriptions for cafes, galleries and salons, and allows more options for variety stores and increases residential options downtown.
Downtown businesses will now be able to use 50% of their property for residential purposes. Parking requirements for eating and drinking establishments are eased, and a 10 p.m. closing time eliminated. Cafes may offer outdoor and sidewalk seating for patrons.
Some business owners felt the new wording didn’t go far enough and sought an end to conditional use permits for most uses in the downtown zone. They said restrictive zoning is “strangling” existing businesses, particularly at a time when they are limited by coronavirus restrictions.
Meet Mayor Cockrum
When Mayor Matt Brown announced that he would not seek reelection, citing professional reasons, Gearhart faced an opening at the top. The PGA golf pro and course owner served as mayor since 2016, when he won on a campaign of citizen involvement and adherence to the city’s comprehensive plan, which he described as “a blueprint for a sustainable, residential Gearhart.”
Brown threw his support to Cockrum, then a city councilor, endorsing her “key role in making fiscal decisions that have led to a budget surplus and a strong financial position for the city over the last four years.”
Brown also pointed to her record on vacation rental regulations, affordable housing, environmental issues and emergency management.
Cockrum, who ran and won unopposed, said she plans to prioritize the needs of firefighters and implement the city’s hazard mitigation plan.
In the city’s other two races, City Councilor Reita Fackerell and Councilor Dan Jesse won reelection by substantial margins, a voter endorsement of the direction of the City Council.
Cockrum’s first act as the new mayor was to appoint Brent Warren to her vacated Position 3 seat. Warren worked for Bank of America, Key Bank and Banner Bank, serving as a vice president of community development in Portland for 33 years before his move to Gearhart.
From a herd of about 40 elk a decade ago, the population jumped to about 100 elk in Gearhart just a couple of years ago.
That number is now estimated at about 150 and will exceed 200 elk in the near future.
Gov. Kate Brown designated the Clatsop Plains Elk Collaborative as an Oregon Solutions project in April 2019.
Oregon Solutions, housed in the College of Urban and Public Affairs at Portland State University, works across jurisdictional lines to help solve problems big and small. Their findings are ahead, and with it, some difficult decisions given the low mortality of elk and the lack of options to reduce the population.
The city could review subdivision ordinances as they relate to elk or work with partners to propose land use changes that would alleviate pressure on elk habitat. They could create elk movement corridors, refuge areas or highway crossings as nonlethal ways to provide a safe habitat and reduce elk and human interactions.
In October, Tim Boyle, president and CEO of Columbia Sportswear and the owner of Gearhart Golf Links, suggested a trap-and-transfer plan that could move elk from Gearhart to state parks or reservations, but that plan is still in the planning stage.
Hazing methods, designed to drive elk off property in Gearhart, have been shown to lead to even more damage and risk. Some members of Oregon Solutions have suggested landowners in more rural areas to the north or south might consider an arrangement to allow hunters. The city could also get a permit to cull the herd within its limits.