Pressure on the city of Hillsboro to scale back its Jackson School Road improvement project has continued to grow since the City Council authorized the use of eminent domain for several properties three weeks ago.
Six property owners along the road have refused to sign land acquisition agreements allowing the city to cut trees and widen the road for safety improvements, which include a center turn lane, sidewalks and raised bike lanes.
Although the city has secured nearly 200 land acquisition agreements, it was clear at the City Council meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 5, that many people are still unhappy with how the project will affect their property values and how transparent the city has been about construction details.
Residents filled the City Council chambers and waved signs that read "Hear Our Voices," "Listen To Us" and "2 Lane Road." People had to stand against the walls because there weren't enough seats during more than an hour of public comment.
A smaller group of people attended the meeting to voice support for the safety improvements and urge the city to go forward with the project as planned.
At the meeting, city staff said they wanted to update the City Council about the project as they have faced renewed pushback recently.
City officials were steadfast in saying the project will continue unchanged, adding the improvement designs are necessary to accommodate expected increases in traffic and boost safety for cars, bicycles and pedestrians. City councilors asked questions of city staff and explained their rationale for approving the project.
City Councilor Kyle Allen clarified that the city is past the point of changing designs.
"There is no other policy concern that's going to be coming forward to council on this project based on the slides you've shown, is that right?" Allen said.
Tina Bailey, the city's transportation division manager, said project designs have come to the City Council for approval during the last three years, adding that most of the policy discussions regarding Jackson School Road occurred more than a decade ago when the city adopted its transportation system plan and its bicycle and pedestrian capital improvement plan. Improving the road has been a priority for the city for more than 40 years, according to city officials.
Most people in the room raised their hands when City Councilor Rick Van Beveren asked how many people were concerned with the road being widened to include a center turn lane. Van Beveren is a Jackson School Road resident.
"Is it possible to have a two-lane road here?" he asked.
Bailey said the city "would be remiss" if it ignored safety problems associated with it being a two-lane road. During her presentation, Bailey said 28 out of the 36 traffic collisions that have occurred on the road in the last five years were rear-end crashes, incidents which staff said would be prevented with a center turn lane.
"It's a potential liability issue," she said.
An audience member shouted, "Is that a 'yes' or a 'no?'" following Bailey's answer.
Allen asked City Attorney Chad Jacobs to explain why city councilors have been asked not to engage in a dialogue about the project because of potential eminent domain litigation.
Property owners have complained that the city is not responsive to their concerns and that city officials have given conflicting answers to questions about project designs. Earlier in the meeting, city staff said there's always someone available at the city to field inquiries about the project.
"There are specific properties in which we have potential litigation, so we're asking not to speak about those specific properties," Jacobs said. "It is incumbent upon the city when we have this information to take steps to try to reduce those risk factors."
He said the city has been sued multiple times recently by people who claimed a roadway wasn't adequately designed to prevent them from being hit.
Multiple city councilors said they support the project because the road currently isn't safe for bicyclists and pedestrians.
"I don't live on Jackson School Road, but I took a walk on Jackson School Road on both sides, and I didn't feel safe," said City Councilor Olivia Alcaire. "And, frankly, I think we want to try to encourage multiple ways that people can get around the city."
Councilor Beach Pace agreed.
"I have biked, walked and scootered Jackson School Road, and in all three cases, I have never felt safe," Pace said. "I look forward to the street when it's done."
Tuesday's public presentation was one of several actions the city has taken to respond to the public groundswell of opposition to the project.
After councilors authorized the use of eminent domain, the city posted a page called "Facts About the Jackson School Road Improvement Project" on the project's website.
Corinne Weiss, a spokesperson for the city, said, "The 'facts about the project' new post was specifically created to correct misinformation we became aware of that was circulating on social media."
The post contains information about the planned width of the road, the city's efforts to minimize the removal of about 300 trees along the road, and the project's budget, which is currently estimated at more than $19 million — up from an estimated $8 million before the project was transferred from Washington County to the city.
"After 13 years of inflation and market changes, that cost estimate no longer reflects current pricing for labor, materials, and land acquisition," the website explains.
In a "Frequently Asked Questions" document that was updated on Nov. 5, the city clarified its statement in a previous post that "most residents in the Jackson School neighborhood have voiced support for this improvement project."
Residents took issue with the statement, saying the city hasn't conducted any polls to gauge support.
"The above statement, which was authored by project staff, might be better summarized as, 'The vast majority of comments about the project received by project staff, and conversations between staff and Jackson School neighborhood residents (as perceived by staff), have included advocacy of safety improvements in the project,'" the city said in the updated post.
The city hasn't changed the previous post to include the clarification.
As a separate gauge of support, Hillsboro officials cite transportation improvements as the third most-requested idea from Hillsboro residents who gave feedback to the Hillsboro 2035 Community Plan.
Multiple people who voiced support for the project at the meeting on Nov. 5 pushed back on other residents' statements that they haven't been adequately made aware of project updates.
Supporters said they have long-awaited safety improvements along the road. One resident told councilors that her son was hit by a car making a turn onto the road on his way to school.
"My biggest concern though is delaying this project and the safety risks associated with that," one audience member said.
Although most people who oppose the project have said they want some safety improvements along the road and their concerns could be resolved if the city scaled back certain designs, city officials have indicated they plan to continue with the project without substantial revisions.
City staff have said that all tree cutting must take place this fall, when migratory birds are not nesting, to comply with laws regarding threatened and endangered species.
Weiss, the city's spokesperson, said Hillsboro won't cut trees on the six properties whose owners haven't reached agreements, but she said the project won't be delayed even if the city and the property owners fail to reach agreements before the bird nesting window ends in February.
"Due to the scope of this project, this would not delay construction," Weiss said.
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