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Commissioners consider asking legislature for $4 million to conduct planning, public engagement

PMG FILE PHOTO: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Gov. Kate Brown speaks at the 2016 dedication of the new Sunrise Expressway, which Clackamas County leaders would like to extend through Damascus.Clackamas County leaders are wrestling with a decision over whether to ask the Oregon Legislature to fund a $4 million planning and public engagement effort for the development of Highway 212's "Sunrise Corridor."

The Clackamas Board of County Commissioners met Monday, Feb. 22, to conclude business it held over from the previous Tuesday policy session while commissioners were out in the community helping distribute supplies to residents affected by last week's ice storm.

Monday's meeting included a somewhat tense 45-minute discussion of the county's funding request to the legislature, what that ask would pay for and how it might conflict with efforts to redevelop I-205. The Sunrise Corridor stretches from I-205 on the southern side of Happy Valley and through the unincorporated Damascus area.

County staff members Trent Wilson, government affairs specialist, and Jamie Stasny, regional transportation and land-use coordinator, pitched the board on the need for both more robust planning and public-engagement efforts in the Sunrise Corridor in order to establish a vision plan for the area's development over the next 20-25 years including infrastructure, transportation, land use, housing and economic development.

"As you all know, the Sunrise Corridor is home to one of the state's busiest and most critical distribution centers, while also being a place for many people who live, work and play to get to the Mount Hood National Forest," Stasny said. "The challenge that we have in this area with this project, which is one of your highest priorities for transportation, is that the last community engagement we conducted was over 10 years ago, and it was solely focused on the road."

PHOTO COURTESY: ODOT - State transportation officials completed this section of new highway in 2016, and Clackamas County leaders would now like funding for the section of road heading farther east.According to Stasny, the public engagement for this vision plan would have been funded by Metro's 2020 transportation package that voters shot down at the ballot box last year. Now the county is looking to find other resources to continue those efforts with a focus on equity and inclusion, as well as partnerships with the city of Happy Valley and the local business community. The research and outreach would take place over the next two years.

Stasny said the county is also prioritizing working with the community to prevent displacement and identify critical infrastructure needs.

Wilson told the board all the county's partners are on board with the proposed planning and public engagement efforts, and they are prepared to support the county's work in a variety of ways.

According to Wilson, the county is also prepared to match state funding with approximately $500,000-1.5 million in services and staff time over the next two years.

Wilson sought approval from the board to begin finalizing documents and getting the county's legislative contingent on board to support carving out funding for the project from the legislature's omnibus budget bill.

But commissioners were unable to come to a consensus despite the request receiving a motion and second from Commissioners Paul Savas and Martha Schrader, respectively.

County Chair Tootie Smith initially voiced stern opposition to the request and the effort in general, stating that the county had more pressing funding priorities, but later in the meetings softened and said she'd be interested to hear more from staff at a later date. Ultimately, the board requested that staff return to a following policy session and answer some of the questions surrounding the proposal for commissioners to reconsider.

Smith also got in a short tiff with Savas after mischaracterizing his use of the word "crisis" in referring to the stretch of road as critical infrastructure for evacuation of residents in future crises such as a Cascadia earthquake event.

"Mr. Savas, I'm going to remind you of something when you talk about evacuation routes: Don't insult me," Smith said. "I was the one that was evacuated on a transportation route out of South Clackamas County, where most of the forest fires were. I could hardly get to my home. I didn't know whether I'd have a home standing when I returned."

Smith called the effort a "hail mary" that could be used instead to help pay for natural disaster response in the face of recent wildfires and last week's ice storm. She also chided county staff for "blindsiding" her with the Sunrise proposal.

"Frankly, I was not prepared for this today because I've been working almost 24/7 on other issues that, frankly, I consider more important, and that's people's lives," Smith said.

Savas asked Smith to explain how she felt blindsided when county staff had circulated the documents outlining the proposal from public and government affairs nearly two weeks ago.

"I don't want our staff to be somewhat shot at if they actually approached this and got approval. You (Smith) and I worked together in our strategy sessions to put this on the agenda, so we were part of this," Savas said.

Commissioner Sonya Fischer said she agreed with Smith that the issue came up somewhat out of the blue without enough preparation in an issues session, noting that $4 million is no small ask.

Before moving on to the next topic of business, County Administrator Gary Schmidt took a moment to point out that commissioners were responsible for doing their homework and being prepared to hear the presentation, and the lack of decision by the board does not reflect the quality of county staff's efforts on this proposal.

"I gotta say this: This has been on your agenda for two weeks. This should be no surprise to any of you," Schmidt said. "With great respect, please do not demoralize staff. They're doing their jobs, and this has been on your priority list for seven years. And at your retreat, you agreed to keep this on your priority list. So with that, staff, you've got some good feedback on how you may want to revise proposals. Come back when the time is right, please."

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