Jackson School Road residents speak out about road improvements
Residents along Hillsboro's Northeast Jackson School Road are voicing concerns as the city prepares to cut down more than 300 trees in the area starting this week.
The tree removal is part of a more than $19 million improvement project for the area, which is expected to widen the road and add sidewalks and street lighting.
But some residents in the area say the project will cause irreparable damage to their properties.
Two weeks ago, Jackson School Road residents Charline and Charles Gebhardt learned a large weeping willow on their property, estimated to be between 75 and 100 years old, will be cut down as part of the project.
According to the Gebhardts' daughter, Kim Harrington, that's just one of the impacts the family is dreading as the project gets under way.
"My parents alone are slated to lose over 50 trees, many of them beautiful old-growth evergreen trees," Harrington told the Hillsboro City Council at its meeting Tuesday, Oct. 15.
City councilors have authorized the use of eminent domain to acquire land from property owners who have refused to sign agreements allowing the city to develop the roadway near their properties.
Construction on the project will take three years, beginning this winter. According to the city's website, widening the 1.5-mile stretch of roadway has been a priority for the city for more than 40 years. In 2015, management of the project was transferred from Washington County to the city.
As a major roadway connecting downtown Hillsboro with Highway 26, the city sees the project as key to meeting the demands of Hillsboro's growing population. About 7,000 vehicles use the roadway every day, officials say, and that's expected to increase to 10,000 vehicles per day in the next 20 years, according to an analysis by the city.
The city also wants the project to improve safety for different forms of transportation. The roadway is currently two lanes, with an intermittent center turn lane, intermittent sidewalks, limited roadway lighting and no bike lanes. The city plans to add a center turn lane, sidewalks and a bike track separated from the vehicle lanes. The city will also upgrade street lighting and storm drains.
Property owners say in addition to the impacts to their homes, they are concerned with how the city has handled the project. Project managers, residents say, haven't been attentive to their concerns or incorporated feedback into project plans. Residents complain about a lack of transparency. They also think the project's scale exceeds what's necessary for the city to accomplish its goals along the road.
In April, the City Council approved plans to put all utility lines along the roadway underground, adding $2.25 million to the cost of the project and one year to its timeline.
Funding for the project will come from a host of different sources, including Washington County's Major Streets Transportation Improvement Program and the Transportation Development Tax. Money from each source is earmarked for specific aspects of the project.
The City Council unanimously passed a resolution Oct. 15 allowing the use of eminent domain for parts of certain properties, which seven landowners — including the Gebhardts — have refused to give up, according to the city's resolution.
Kim Harrington lives in a house adjacent to her parents on Jackson School Road. The two houses share a wooded back yard area with large trees and a creek. The family has long called Hillsboro home. Both Harrington and her husband, Scott, graduated from Hillsboro High School. She moved to the property with her parents and built their two houses 12 years ago.
During a City Council meeting last week, Harrington spoke to councilors for more than 10 minutes, describing the family's concerns with how the city has handled the project.
"We have unofficially been told that their property is the most affected property in this road project," Harrington said. "The back one-third of my parents' acre near the creek, along where the 25-foot diameter culvert is being redesigned, will find every single tree, shrub and plant razed down, bulldozed."
Harrington said her family members have received changing and at times contradictory information from city officials about how their properties would be affected. She said questions about documents they've received in the mail haven't been clearly answered.
"Nothing has been transparent from the city," she said.
For years, city officials reassured Harrington's family that an old willow tree on their property would not have to be cut down. She said it's a testament to the city's lack of transparency that they found out the tree would have to be cut down two weeks ago, after her husband went to the city requesting more information.
"This tree is the pride and the joy of our lots," Harrington said. "Truly, it's one of the reasons my folks even bought this property in the first place."
The city plans to plant more than 350 trees along the road, according to the city's website.
Harrington says the new trees can't replace what they are losing for the project.
"I think it's horrible. I can't believe they would equate these evergreen trees with a 3-foot-tall bare root tree," she said.
Harrington's daughter, Brigette, was selected by Gov. Kate Brown last year to light the Capitol Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. — last year's tree was delivered from Oregon. Brigette recently published a children's book called "My Oregon" about her love of nature. Harrington took a picture of Brigette standing with her book in front of the family's willow tree.
"Every single tree you see in the background (will be) gone," she said.
About one-third of a mile south on Jackson School Road, property owner Cindy Easton has similar concerns about the project.
Like the Harringtons, Easton agrees the city should make roadways safer and more accessible to pedestrians and bicyclists. But she thinks the city's plans — such as putting 10-foot-wide bike lanes on each side of the road — go beyond what's necessary to reach those goals.
"It is important to have bike paths and sidewalks," Easton said. "But it's excessive. If they just scaled it back to, say, eight feet on each side of the road, that's four extra feet they can work with, which really would minimize the impact to the trees and the property owners."
The city hasn't taken feedback from property owners in a meaningful way since the beginning, Easton said. When the city held open houses about the project a few years ago, Easton and her husband wanted to provide input. But she noticed city officials at meetings weren't recording their comments.
"We've been to so many meetings," Easton said. "We've heard so many different stories. It left us feeling like we just don't know what we can believe or not believe."
Eight trees will be cut down on Easton's property. One of her main concerns is the impact the project will have on her and her husband's retirement plans and their property value. She said they bought their property in 1992 with the expectation that they would subdivide it and develop. She said the city's plans to install a utility box on her property and the easements that go along with it will make subdividing more expensive.
Unlike the Harringtons, Easton agreed to accept the city's compensation for part of her property last week.
"But that all goes into planting trees and recovering from all of this," she said. "It's not like we're better off or anything. We have a lot of headaches to deal with and we can't even deal with them for three years. During that time we will have lost our privacy because we won't have the natural barrier of our trees."
City officials did not respond to a list of questions emailed by the News-Times on Friday afternoon by deadline on Tuesday morning. The questions related to how the city uses eminent domain, how the city took feedback from residents, how many property owners have signed agreements with the city and how property owners were notified of changes to the project plans, for example. Patrick Preston, spokesperson for the city, said Tuesday morning the city is working to come to agreements that avoid litigation with property owners, but that the possibility of litigation requires the questions to be reviewed by the city attorney.
By Max Egener
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