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City Council denies Migrant Head Start application

After listening to 4 1/2 hours of testimony before a standing-room only crowd, council overturns planning commission ruling on a 5-1 vote
News Editor
   After hearing 4 1/2 hours of emotional testimony, the Madras City Council last Tuesday rejected a conditional use application by the Oregon Child Development Coalition to construct a $1.6 million, 2.17-acre facility in the northwest corner of Bean Park.
   In a 5-1 vote, the council overturned a Nov. 7 decision by the city's Planning Commission to grant the nonprofit corporation a permit to build a Migrant Head Start on 4.8 acres of land owned by the Bean Foundation. Councilor Melanie Widmer cast the lone "nay" vote.
   Fourteen Jefferson County residents appealed the Planning Commission's decision to the City Council, and their attorney, Dan Van Vactor of Bend, successfully convinced a majority of councilors that the Migrant Head Start's use was not permitted in the R-1 single-family residential zone.
   The evening was punctuated by passionate comments from OCDC officials, farmers opposed to the building, residents near Bean Park and supporters of the Migrant Head Start.
   There were even moments of humor. Madras Mayor Rick Allen, surveying the standing-room only crowd of more than 70, opened the appeal hearing by declaring: "It's been a year today since we drew this size of a crowd. That was when Bill Sizemore left town."
   Van Vactor spent 45 minutes arguing the fine points of his clients' appeal, which covered many topics but hinged on the interpretation of a "day care" and "school" in the context of the R-1 zone.
   Van Vactor told the City Council that its Planning Commission "got took there by your staff" when it approved the application by a 3-1 vote. He said the proposed Migrant Head Start was a day care, not a school, and therefore was not permitted in the R-1 zone.
   "The question was never phrased or asked, `Is this a school,' " said Van Vactor, who followed his comment by arguing what he believed was and was not permitted in section 3.1 of the city's zoning ordinances.
   That section proved to be the focus of debate. It says, among other things, that "[p]ublic buildings, such as a library, fire station, museum, public or private schools, etc." are permitted conditional uses in the R-1 zone. Van Vactor told the council that the proposed Migrant Head Start was a day care.
   Earlier, OCDC Facilities Manager Rod Walker spent an hour disputing those claims.
   "By state law, the (planning) commission is offered some latitude to interpret city ordinances," he said.
   "Not every use is going to have a specific place it's going to fit in the ordinances," Walker continued. "The primary function of Migrant Head Start is education. The proposed use is most similar to a school."
   Walker added that, if anything, the proposed Head Start was allowable under the "etc." wording in the ordinance.
   Van Vactor responded: "As much as I respect and laud the goals of this applicant and application, this is not etcetera."
   Council members grilled both parties as to their assertions. They challenged Van Vactor to define the meaning of a school.
   "Remember, schools operate nine months out of the year," he said. "School is the definition here, not education."
   "Dan, you're not trying to tell me a school has to be done on June 15 and begin in September?" Allen responded. "That `etc.' to me means `etc.'"
   "But I can tell you it does not mean day care center," said Van Vactor.
   Walker told the council that many of the issues raised in the appeal were not relevant to the land-use issue, including the needs, numbers and whether the Migrant Head Start program had a viable future with agriculture supposedly on the decline.
   "The impact that it has to the local economy is the city's business," councilor Bob Sjolund told Walker. "It's a nonprofit and it's not taxed so it is our business."
   Councilor Frank Morton questioned the OCDC officials on whether they would be able to make a profit by leasing out the space during the seven months the building isn't serving the children of migrant farm workers.
   The comments made by community members, and the questions posed by the city council members indicated there was on fine line between the land use issues and the credibility of the program, which opponents of the OCDC have vigorously attacked.
   Only a handful of citizens spoke out against the proposal, but they reiterated many of their criticisms of the OCDC -- that it was a wasteful taxpayer funded nonprofit top-heavy in administrative costs, that the OCDC had grossly exaggerated the potential numbers of the children it could serve and that it didn't belong in northeast Madras.
   "These kids have to be on welfare in poverty and their parents have to be farm workers," said Marie Easter. "How many of these families do you think live in northeast Madras? None of them.
   "It should be built closer to the people who will use it. It should be built in southwest Madras, Metolius or Culver."
   Nancy Richards, a farmer, told the councilors that her family employed only two migrant workers -- not the six suggested in a document provided by the OCDC.
   Camile Harris also presented results of both a telephone and mail survey she conducted that suggested there were only 87 migrants working the county's farms last summer. OCDC numbers suggest there were potentially 423.
   "Really, is this how government works?" Harris asked. "Using inflated government numbers for more government dollars?"
   Several supporters of Migrant Head Start spoke out and questioned the opponents' motives.
   "This is kind of a prejudice thing going on here," said Sandy Castro. "Didn't you guys learn anything from September 11th? Why doesn't the community start living together."
   Others touted the program as an economic benefit to the community by employing a staff on a $600,000 payroll and helping Hispanic kids learn English and become acclimated into the community.
   "If we want these kids to be part of the community, if we want to give them a head start, we can help them become valued members of the community," said Fran Olson, the program's bus driver.
   After testimony concluded, each councilor spoke briefly during deliberations on their position before a roll call vote was taken.
   Morton, who was first to speak, did not offer his opinion but said he believed "it comes down to the best salesman. I think we have to listen to what the two gentlemen said and go from there."
   Pamela Thomas indicated that she felt the building would be "quite much" for the neighborhood. "I don't feel think it should be in the R-1 zone," she said.
   Councilors Michael Goss and Dave Allison said they believed the applicant did not meet the zoning criteria.
   Sjolund said he felt the various Head Start programs should look toward working together. Another Head Start program, the Children's Learning Center, is located directly across the street from the proposed migrant building.
   "I feel like we're separating our kids," Sjolund said.
   Widmer, who was the only councilor prepared to deny the appeal, said she believed the application qualified as a conditional use under the definition of a "public building."
   "I thought they did meet the zoning requirements," Widmer said afterward. "A lot of things brought up were not land-use issues that factored into some people's decisions."
   The OCDC can appeal the city council's decision to the Land Use Board of Appeals, but Juanita Santana, the nonprofit's executive director, said shortly after the hearing that the group might not pursue that option.