Welcome center hearing continued

The Jackson County Planning Commission listened to two and a half hours of public testimony Thursday on the Oregon Department of Transportation's proposed Siskiyou Rest Area and Welcome Center near Ashland.

Many Ashland residents who live near the proposed site, which is slated for the northbound side of I-5 between mile markers 12 and 13, listed noise, crime and safety concerns as their main reasons for opposing the 18-acre facility. Several people involved in Oregon tourism spoke in support of the project they said would bring in much needed tourism dollars.

Carolyn Hill, with the Southern Oregon Visitors Association, said tourism accounts for $340 million being spent in Jackson County, and $8 billion statewide.

She said Southern Oregon is losing opportunities since the welcome center near the Siskiyou summit on I-5 closed down several years ago due to safety concerns.

Hill said that while the current welcome center, which operates out of the EconoLodge off exit 19, is a nice facility, it's neither visible nor easily accessible to travelers coming up from California.

Kay Stein of Ashland said welcome centers are "dinosaurs from the past."

"Ask anyone under 40 years of age where they get their information," she said. "They all get it from the Internet."

Bonnie McCormick, who manages the current welcome center in Ashland, said she disagreed with the belief that no one uses welcome centers anymore.

"We get visitors all the time who come up from California and say they never even saw a welcome center down there because they are all off the interstates and located in strip malls," she said. "People always comment that they had no idea where to go or what to do when they were traveling through California."

Why here?

Several of the people who spoke at the public hearing said they were not objecting to a welcome center, but rather the proposed location.

Rick Sultan lives above Weisenger's Winery in Ashland. He said, "Sure we need a rest area, but not in my face. Not in my backyard."

He wondered why ODOT couldn't put the welcome center closer to the Port of Entry.

Shirley Roberts, planning project manager for ODOT out of Central Point, said after the meeting that mixing semi-truck traffic with welcome center traffic and pedestrians would create unsafe conditions.

"Plus, the land in that area is sloped," she said. "We're looking at flat land for this project."

Tim Fletcher, project manager for ODOT, said after the meeting that they had looked at other locations for the rest stop/welcome center and had determined that the area between mile markers 12 and 13 was the best location.

Roberts said ODOT mostly took into consideration areas outside of the heavy snow zone with level and somewhat straight roadways.

"We didn't really look past exit 14 because the traffic starts getting pretty heavy after that, which is not an ideal situation to put a welcome center," she said.

Crime, noise, safety

Many Ashland residents told the commissioners that their main concerns were the increased noise, possibility of increased crime, lowered property values and the unsafe conditions of semis with hot brakes not being able to slow down.

Ashland resident Allen Walters highlighted many incidents of crime and fatal accidents that have occurred in Ashland near the interstate. He said an "incident wall" would do much to protect neighbors from crime and vehicle accidents.

Other residents suggested some sort of noise barrier.

After the meeting, Fletcher said ODOT is conducting a second noise study that would determine whether a sound wall will be warranted. He said the study should be completed in April.

The commissioners continued the meeting for the third time, agreeing to finish the public hearing at the commission's May 8 meeting.

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