In July, Walt Wendolowski will retire from his post as community development director for the city of Lebanon.
He has worked in community planning for more than 30 and in a real way, Oregon’s forward thinking on this issue shaped the direction of his life.
Wendolowski, 66, grew up in an Air Force household, living at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho and Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire.
He met his wife, Zoe, while they were students at the University of New Hampshire. As they were considering where to live, they were intrigued by what they heard from then-Oregon Gov. Tom McCall.
“Everything we heard back east was, they’re starting to do some cool things in Oregon. The beach bill, the bottle bill, land-use planning. It seemed to be a very forward looking state and when we left New Hampshire with all our goods in our car, we had people saying ‘do you have room in your glove box?” Wendolowski remembered. “Really. A lot of folks just wanted to come out here.”
After earning a graduate degree at Oregon State, he got his first planning job in 1986 with Coos County. He went on to work for Marion County, the city of Keizer, and the Mid-Willamette Valley Council of Governments in Salem.
He then started his own consulting firm and provided services for a number of smaller communities in the state, including Amity, Aumsville, Gaston, Yamhill, Sheridan and Willamina.
In 2007, Lebanon City Manager John Hitt called and asked if he was interested in serving as planning director for the city. Simplifying his life by working for just one community seemed like a good idea.
“I was going to three or four night meetings a week, getting home at 1 o’clock in the morning,” Wendolowski said.
He soon discovered that Lebanon was a great fit.
“What I’m proudest of is when we have a meeting with a developer on a project, we have a thing called a development review team. And what we do is someone has a project and we sit down with the fire district, public works, engineering, sometimes building, I’m in there, and we sit down with them and we help the folks with their project,” Wendolowski said. “The proudest moment is when they say ‘this place is so easy to work with.’”
Looking ahead, Wendolowski has concerns about the condition of the state’s land-use planning system.
“I think the system has become calcified. There’s so many rules and regulations and so many court cases. It’s not only statute but administrative rules. Instead of being a program that is community based, it’s become contrary to what I think planning should be,” Wendolowski said.
His fear is that if planning continues to be disconnected from the values of communities, the system will eventually fail.
“All too often we get into legal entanglements as opposed to ‘let’s use some common sense here,’” Wendolowski said. “I am really concerned that this program will die the death of a thousand cuts.”
Planning should start with the basic question of whether a project makes sense for a particular location and if it does, then you look at the details such as setbacks and other issues.
While Wendolowski is retiring from his city post, he is not leaving the land-use planning business. He will return to his consulting roots and provide assistance to the cities of Turner, Millersburg, Aumsville, and Sweet Home.
As for the city of Lebanon, he believes the community is in a good place to move forward.
“In my 35 years of being in the public sector, I’ve never, ever worked with a city that the council, the city manager, the department managers, the planning commission, everyone’s on the same page. That really makes a difference,” Wendolowski said. “You don’t see everyone going off in a different direction.”