Planning Commission OK's Migrant Head Start
Opponents say they are ready to appeal the ruling to the City Council and beyond if necessaryBy Troy Foster
The City of Madras Planning Commission has approved a controversial proposal by the Oregon Child Development Coalition to construct a $1.6 million Head Start facility on 4.8 acres of Bean Park to service children of migrant farm workers.
The commission approved the conditional use application on a 3-1 vote before a packed city hall last Wednesday. Its decision brought to close a 3 1/2-hour meeting punctuated by emotional testimony and sometimes fiery tempers.
"I think based on our application and testimony that we had, we expected approval," Rod Walker, OCDC's senior facilities manager, said afterward. "I think most of the issues people have with us aren't really related to land use, conditional use or zoning laws."
OCDC's 16,200 square-foot, 2.17-acre facility, however, still has many hurdles to overcome before it could become reality.
The Planning Commission's decision can be appealed to the City Council, which would then hold a de novo hearing -- one in which they would be obligated to review the application and hear testimony from scratch. The council's decision can then be appealed to the Land Use Board of Appeals.
Opponents indicated after the hearing that they would fight this development to the very end.
"I am ready to spend some money on a lawyer," said Larry Easter, who owns and operates the East Cascade Assisted Living center across A Street from the proposed Head Start. "It was a rushed decision for the level of importance of this. They didn't pay attention to the testimony whatsoever.
"A conditional use permit is supposed to benefit the whole community," Easter continued. "This benefits a select few that don't even live in the neighborhood."
Only four members of what is otherwise a seven-member commission ruled on the application to build a child-care facility in a single family residential zone. Pat Taylor, its chair, abstained from the proceedings because she is a neighbor of the proposed building and opposes it. Two other seats are vacant and the most seasoned remaining Planning Commission members, Rob Hastings and Robin Heckathorn, were sworn in last February.
Four representatives from the OCDC presented their application to the commission, including Jefferson County Director Diane Treadway and architect Leslie Hara-Shick, who also designed the Children's Learning Center across the street.
When the microphone was turned over to the general public, emotions quickly began to flare.
The first woman to take the podium spoke of the benefit of bringing "government funds" into Madras before a man from the back row interrupted. "You mean taxpayer money," he shouted.
On more than one occasion, Planning Commission Vice Chairman John Gold reminded both proponents and opponents of the federally funded Head Start to keep their comments to land use criteria, not emotions, but the range of issues voiced for more than three hours remained broad.
Opponents reiterated their long list of problems with the OCDC and its proposed facility. They questioned the need for such a large building with agriculture on the decline, whether the building belonged in the neighborhood and whether the actual numbers provided by the OCDC were true -- plus a whole host of other topics.
Marie Easter even told the commission that Treadway, a former board member of the state-funded Children's Learning Center, just "wanted a bigger and better building" next to it. "That's the only reason I can see why they want it there," she added.
Most opponents, however, were more cautious in their criticism.
Robert Forbes voiced what many others in opposition echoed: "I'm not against the Migrant Head Start," he said, "but I ask you to question the numbers that there will be 100 children."
Camile Harris, an area farmer, presented results of an unscientific telephone survey she conducted in August, where her numbers claim to show that only 87 migrant workers were needed in the county this year compared to the 423 migrant workers listed according to OCDC statistics.
"Do we determine what should be built in our Madras community of 5,000?" Harris asked the commission. "Or should we build according to estimates by people from Salem or Washington, D.C.?"
Although most of the public comments were critical of the OCDC, there were some in attendance that spoke in favor of a new migrant Head Start building.
Teresa Leno, a local business owner who identified herself as the daughter of migrant farm workers who moved to Jefferson County 40 years ago, said, "Whether there's 10 kids or 100 kids, it's still needed."
Some critics did zero in on land-use issues in their unsuccessful attempt to stop the conditional use application from clearing the Planning Commission. They told the four members that they didn't want more traffic in their neighborhood and were concerned that no traffic impact study was provided with the application. The other sticking point regarded what the building was going to be used for during its off-season.
The OCDC operates its Migrant Head Start program from May 1 to Oct. 31 in a building at 108 S.W. D St. that can serve a maximum of 50 children. Its new building could service 100 children, from toddlers to 5 year olds.
Juanita Santana, OCDC's executive director, told the commission that the building would remain empty during the seven-month off-season not counting two employees that will remain in their administrative role year-round.
Therefore, the Planning Commission at the recommendation of Planning Director Chris Bedsaul tied a condition to their approval that prohibits the Migrant Head Start from being used for any purpose other than child care during those seven months.
However, not everyone left the meeting convinced.
Rob Hastings, the Planning Commission member who cast the lone "nay" vote, said he did so for two reasons: "My first concern is about the use of the building during the off season," he said, "and the second reason is the concerns of the residents in the area about traffic."
The OCDC operates 13 seasonal migrant head start centers in Oregon. Its Jefferson County program has been in operation for two years.
Rod Walker said traffic and livability issues are often concerns of residents that live near OCDC-operated Head Start programs.
"The issues tend to be pretty similar from community to community," Walker said. "But we haven't had this much scrutiny regarding funding and the need as we've had in Jefferson County."
Added Treadway: "Typical proceedings like this don't usually allow issues to be raised that don't partain to land use," she said. "But it wasn't wasted time by any means because people have concerns and they had the opportunity to raise them."