Change comes fitfully to a street east of Cornelius. It won't be the only one as the suburban city grows.

STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - George Gunn walks his dog Molly on Northwest 341st Avenue, where he has lived for decades. The Greystone residential development is poised to change the character of his mostly unincorporated neighborhood.George Gunn isn't against development. He wants to be clear about that.

But on the eastern fringe of fast-growing Cornelius — Gunn actually lives a couple blocks outside city limits — some residents like him are apprehensive about the ripple effects on development on their neighborhood.

Broadly defined, there are two types of development on vacant land: infill development, in which a parcel within a populated area is built up; and urbanization, sometimes derisively called "sprawl development," in which a rural area on the outskirts of a populated area is developed.

But the unincorporated neighborhood where Gunn lives, along Northwest 341st Avenue, falls into a category sometimes described by planners as "peri-urban," or "rurban." The lot sizes and density are roughly comparable to incorporated Cornelius neighborhoods, but the typical house in the area has its own septic system instead of a sewer hookup, some residents choose to keep chickens or even horses, and — this is the important part — the streets are built to a lower design standard.

New improvements considered 'interim step,' with asterisk

Cornelius annexed the very northernmost part of 341st Avenue, immediately beyond the disused railroad tracks that run several blocks north of Highway 8, last year. Work started earlier this year on a new subdivision to the west of that segment of 341st Avenue, on what is now incorporated land. Greystone by Stone Bridge Homes NW is expected to add 54 new houses to the neighborhood once complete.

As part of the project, the developer agreed to improve 341st Avenue and add a dedicated right-turn lane onto the street from Highway 8 westbound. To that end, 341st Avenue has been widened by several feet and upgraded with what the city describes as a "walking path."

"That's an interim step," said Ryan Wells, community development director of Cornelius. "It might be interim for a while. But as those properties develop over a long period of time, and at the volition of the actual property-owners, those frontages will be improved to full city collector status. At some time, there's going to be a sidewalk and/or a raised pathway."

Gunn isn't satisfied with the improvements he's seen in front of his house thus far. He's not the only 341st Avenue resident who isn't, either.

For all intents and purposes, for someone driving along 341st Avenue, the walking path is indistinguishable from the width of the road meant for travel. The only sign that it's different is a faint seam that indicates the westernmost strip of asphalt is newer than the rest of the road.

"Nobody knows it's a walking path," Gunn said.

Gunn is worried about pedestrian safety, he said — especially if there are children, who are smaller and have less peripheral awareness than adults, walking along the street. He is particularly uneasy about the path in conjunction with what Wells described as a "pre-existing condition" of the road: a moderately steep slope as it descends from the neighborhood south to meet Highway 8, at an intersection controlled only by a stop sign from 341st Avenue turning out onto the state highway.

One of Gunn's neighbors was driving out from her house a couple of winters ago, in snowy and icy conditions — she said she doesn't remember exactly when — when her car skidded down the hill and slid out onto the highway. Luckily, there was no oncoming traffic at the time.

The Greystone development isn't changing the geometry of the hill, but it is going to add 54 homes to the north end of the street, Gunn pointed out. That means more pedestrians and more vehicles on the road, negotiating that slope and waiting at that stop sign.

"How many people are going to die going down that hill in the snow and ice?" Gunn asked rhetorically. "Especially if these are Californians who come up here and don't know how to drive in the snow and ice?"

He added, "I have no complaints about them building the development. That's the way life is."

STAFF PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - George Gunn maintains that he's not against development, but he is concerned about road safety in his neighborhood with dozens more residents slated to move in.

City plans upgraded transportation system in area

The unmarked walking path, at least, is something Cornelius city officials and the developer have immediate plans to address.

"None of the striping has been done yet on the project," Wells said. "That walking path is going to be striped and marked as a pedestrian-only pathway. … It's going to be clearly delineated as a separate pathway. There's going to be a white marking along the entire length of that walkway."

By next spring, that work will be underway or completed, Wells said. In other words: "All that work's going to be done before there is even one house" built at Greystone, he said. He also noted that the city will need to accept those improvements, agreeing that they were made to city officials' satisfaction, before the developer is contractually permitted to move ahead with home construction, which likely won't start before next summer.

The hill is a trickier matter. City officials are aware that the slope is not ideal and that the proliferation of non-signalized intersections along that stretch of Highway 8, in between Cornelius and Dairy Creek to the east, creates a traffic hazard. But Wells said the best that the city, and area residents, can hope for is that "incremental improvements" are made as the outskirts of Cornelius are redeveloped piece by piece.

A transportation system plan adopted by the Cornelius City Council earlier this year calls for traffic signals to be installed at the intersection of Highway 8 and 341st Avenue, which the plan envisions continuing south of the highway in the future. It also sketches out a "frontage road" that Wells said will, ideally, run between 341st and 334th avenues north of the highway, eliminating the too-close-for-comfort highway intersections of 338th and 336th avenues.

Once all of those additions are built, 341st Avenue will see more traffic. As that volume increases, Wells said, he anticipates regrading the hill will become necessary in the interest of public safety. But for now, he said, the city is limited in how much it can require the Greystone developer to do to upgrade the street — and reshaping a hill is no minor undertaking, he noted.

"It exceeded a reasonable level of proportionality to make them come in and actually re-grade the entire street," Wells said.

The same is true of an alternative route that the city studied, which Gunn said he would have preferred: a bridge on North Holladay Street, which would span a wetland gully between Greystone and the Nature's Ridge subdivision to its west. Bridge construction is notoriously expensive, and Wells said initial estimates were coming in at about $5 million for that project — prohibitively costly, city officials concluded, for access to 54 new homes.

"I'd love it if we could, but if you start throwing so much at a relatively modest development, it becomes fodder for either challenges or lawsuits or whatnot," Wells said. "You can't just burden them with so much extra that it makes a project unfeasible. … It makes it tough sometimes to have the conversation with the community that maybe doesn't like to see the change, doesn't like to see the additional impacts, but we've really worked hard to try to maintain perspective and their point of view and improve the condition for them as well, as much as we can."

If the peri-urban area continues to develop, Wells said, the layout of Greystone does not preclude a bridge from being built over the wetlands in the future.

For now, city officials are considering one development at a time, as Cornelius' population booms from about 12,500 today to an anticipated 17,500 by 2040. The drama now playing out along 341st Avenue is one that will likely be repeated on other streets, with other developments.

"I guess if they had filled in all the ditches, widened the road nice, marked the walking path, I probably wouldn't even be complaining," Gunn said. "Because I know this is a reality."

But walking back to his house with a neighbor, Gunn seemed more wistful. He's lived on 341st Avenue for close to 35 years, he said.

"This was a very quiet street for a long time," he said.

For Wells' part, he is hopeful that the improvements the city has planned will improve the quality of life for current and future residents alike. He's encouraging community members like Gunn to be patient for now.

"Once the dust settles, we're going to have a much nicer, safer street," Wells said. "Of course, there are going to be more residents up there on the north side, but I'm hoping that the residents along 341st … will feel that the city did right by them in the end. That's my goal."

By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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