The top 9 stories of 2019

The year 2019 was anything but dull in Keizer.

Between big conversations about how the city will grow to resolutions in court battles involving a gun range and an eminent domain dispute, news in Keizer impacted every corner of the city. Keizertimes looked back over the past 360-ish days for what constituted the biggest news of the year. These are the stories that drew our attention and the attention of our readers. 

An eminent domain battle

The year began with the Salem-Keizer School District and St. Edward Catholic Church engaged in a court battle over a church-owned piece of land the school district wanted to make way for an expansion at McNary High School. 

The school district paid for two appraisals and St. Edward rejected an offer of $1.75 million. The church asserted that because it is a religious entity that it was harder to take their land than it would be for another owner. 

The battle in the courts ended in a settlement in February with a deal for $2.26 million. The property, which is west of St. Edward, is currently being used as a construction staging area, but will eventually become new sports fields for the Celtics. 

Housing crisis comes home to roost

Housing in Keizer was one of the two hottest topics at city hall all year long. Most of Oregon’s larger cities are experiencing a housing shortage of some sort and Keizer is no different. The city is about 500 acres short of what it would need to accommodate expected growth over the next 20 years and the minimal space available for the short term is driving up housing costs in every corner. 

The city was labeled as rent-burdened by the state in late 2018 and the Oregon Legislature mandated meetings and commissioned a study examining what city officials might do to alleviate the problem.

Portions of the problem were addressed with the adoption of a new development code for the city’s commercial centers. Additional changes enacted by the Oregon Legislature will revamp single-family development zones throughout the state and might address another piece.

However, when the city council held its final meeting on the topic in November its answer was: wait for the market to catch up. 

A sort-of answer to

the UGB question 

In addition to the housing crisis, how and whether Keizer should grow was the major question city officials wrestled with throughout the year. 

The city completed a few studies that provided paths forward. Keizer could petition the state to separate its Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) from Salem and absorb new spaces to the north. Another option was increasing density within the existing UGB. 

A special task force was assembled and stakeholders were invited to provide their input throughout the process. In the end, both the task force and the Keizer Planning Commission recommended increasing density rather than forging ahead with a UGB separation, a process that would result in vast expenditures of time and money with uncertain outcomes. 

However, planning commissioners also directed city staff to begin the long process of planning for UGB expansion – someday. 

Keizer’s reading problem

In February, Keizertimes

reported on the results of determined sleuthing on the part of some McNary High School administrators. An uptick in requests for spaces in remedial English classes led Assistant Principal Susanne Stefani to dig deeper into the reading skills of the incoming freshman. What she found was that roughly 45 percent of the 542 freshmen could not read at grade level. 

The responsibility for helping students catch up was also falling on the entire staff at the school. At the same time requests for remedial literacy classes more than doubled, the school district announced it was doing away with them. 

What was clear from the data was that the problems did not arise from any one particular feeder school or any particular subgroup of the student body. When school report cards were released in December, the number of Keizer schools that didn’t meet language arts averages in the state appeared to back up the numbers Stefani uncovered and provided further proof that the problem was widely dispersed. 

Resolution in shooting range dispute

In September 2017, a stray bullet from a quarry being used as a shooting range across the Willamette River penetrated the home of a west Keizer couple. It launched conflict that embroiled the City of Keizer, a west Salem quarry owner, Polk county authorities and even the Oregon Legislature. When efforts to address the problem of shooting range-type activity on the property died a quiet death, resolution fell to a lawsuit between the Keizer residents, the property owner and the City of Keizer. 

The parties involved reached a settlement in August that restricted the type of guns being used at the quarry to shotguns. While shooting activities will likely still create noise for Keizer residents living near the river, shotgun shells do not travel as far as those from other types of guns. 

City Attorney Shannon Johnson hailed the settlement as “a tremendous victory.”

Manufactured mess

In March, the Keizertimes reported on rising monthly rents at a manufactured home park as a way to shine a light on how growth was impacting some of the city’s most vulnerable residents. That first report led to months of covering issues at manufactured home parks ranging from pressures to sign long-term leases to attempts to squash communication among residents and deteriorating conditions at another park owned by the same California-based investment group. 

Less than a week after Keizertimes  brought safety issues to light at McNary Oaks Mobile Villa, the park owner had maintenance crews of all kinds at the site repairing sidewalks, walkways and removing dangerous trees that had long been unattended. In November, McNary Oaks residents held a meeting with a goal of reconnecting the community within the park and, possibly, establishing a tenant organization to continue talking with management as things move forward. 

In-N-Out arrives

The lines began almost 48 hours before In-N-Out opened its doors to double-doubles and secret menu options. By the time the fan-favorite burger chain opened on Thursday, Dec. 12, waits for in the drive-thru and walk-in ranged from two to four hours. 

Almost two weeks after opening there was still a considerable wait, but things were kept moving by a team of traffic controllers. 

The company brought in a team of “all stars” to prep and train the staff for the onslaught of customers coming from an hour or more away. In-N-Out is expected to have a regular staff of about 100 employees – at least until the next location opens farther north. 

“It’s an amazing experience to see customers that are so loyal to us. I really enjoy the people of this area. Being a part of the local scene is something special,” said John Ford, store manager. 

Man re-convicted in wife’s murder

Peter Zielinski murdered his wife, Lisa, in January 2011 and stood trial in 2013. It resulted in sentence of 25 years to life. Zielinski appealed the conviction and was ordered to stand trial again after the Oregon Appeals Court, in 2017, determined that evidence of extreme emotional distress had been wrongfully excluded during the first trial. 

In an eight-day trial held in September, a new jury heard from a parade of witnesses attesting to Zielinski’s prior treatment of his wife and psychiatrists who claimed emotional stress had driven him to the point of murder. 

In the end, Zielinski was convicted of murder a second time and his sentence remained the same. 

“He shot her because she was a possession and the possession no longer wanted to be possessed,” said Judge Susan Tripp. 

Volcanoes’ MLB future in in doubt

The Salem-Keizer Volcanoes might lose their affiliation with Major League Baseball (MLB) if a plan to revamp the minor league structure is adopted. In late October, MLB released a proposal to shrink its minor leagues by 42 teams and eliminate affiliations like the one the Volcanoes share with the San Francisco Giants. In the Northwest League, the proposal put the Volcanoes and Tri-City Dust Devils on the chopping block. 

The changes would not take place until the 2021 season, but it will leave team owner Jerry Walker with a tough decision: try to make a go of it as an independent organization or cease operations. Walker visited Washington, D.C., in November to lobby members of Congress along with other team owners, but, for now, negotiations are continuing.