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Drug house spurs neighborhood revitalization

by: Photo By Holly M. Gill - City and county officials, from left, Madras Mayor Rick Allen, County Administrator Matthew Birnie, Commissioner Walt Ponsford, and City Administrator Mike Morgan discuss plans for a new housing complex at Jefferson Street and U.S. Highway 97.


   It took a drug house surrounded by sewage before county and city officials realized that it was time to step in and deal with a growing problem on the outskirts of Madras.
   County Commissioner Walt Ponsford recalled that a man who owned property near Jefferson Street, just north of the city limits, in an area that officials call the "North Unit Subdivision" (no connection to North Unit Irrigation District), contacted him last year and complained that a mobile home was out of place, hooked into the property owner's water and electric supply.
   When the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office looked into the complaint, they discovered that the mobile home was a full-service illegal drug operation.
   "It was a drug store -- anything from marijuana to you name it, you could probably buy," said Ponsford.
   Instead of a front door, the trailer had a blanket, and instead of a toilet, connected to actual plumbing, there was a pit.
   "When it was flushed, it went down into an open hole they had dug," he said.
   The men who operated the illegal business were arrested on drug charges, and the broken down trailer was hauled away by the county and destroyed.
   "It appeared by magic, and, by the same token, that's how it disappeared," said Ponsford, adding that the property owner, who does not live in the area, had no idea that someone had parked on the property.
   Encouraged by Ponsford, county and city officials visited the area and saw that while some homes were well-kept, others were in very bad shape.
   "We walked down a designated alley, and there was raw sewage going down the middle of it," said Ponsford. "I can't abide that."
   Director of the County Community Development Department Chris Gannon said that the area has a history of failed septic systems. "The size of the lots is small, but more importantly, some of the dwellings have more people in them than we would have planned for in terms of sizing the septic system," he said.
   Additionally, soil types in the area are "not conducive to septic systems," Gannon noted. "Obviously we have the goal of bringing the systems into the city sewer system. By law, that requires annexation."
   Working with the Central Oregon Regional Housing Authority, which helps provide affordable housing for low-income residents, county and city officials came up with a plan to gradually change the appearance of the area, so that more residents could be proud of their homes.
   Last fall, the city, county, and CORHA signed a memorandum of understanding that it was in the interest of all three parties and the community to:
   . Provide an attractive gateway to the city of Madras;
   . Alleviate the blighted conditions in the subdivision;
   . Provide a safe and attractive neighborhood for its residents, free from crime; and
   . Address the lack of basic infrastructure, primarily water and sewer.
   CORHA Director Cyndy Cook explained, "We were asked by Jefferson County and the city of Madras to assist in redeveloping this neighborhood, in a way that will spark private investment."
   With money from the Community Development Financial Institute and loan funds from Community and Shelter Assistance Corp. (CASA), Cook said that CORHA has secured three properties in the area, which it will close on in April.
   The largest of the three -- a 1.83-acre parcel on the northwest corner of Jefferson Street and U.S. Highway 97 -- will be the site of a multi-family apartment complex.
   Last September, Peter Hainley, executive director of CASA, which developed the Menta Park housing units for agricultural workers in Madras, said that CASA could put the project together, with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development Project.
   The modern complex, which is expected to take about two years to complete, will contain about 20 units, with two or three bedrooms, for agricultural workers.
   "Rural Development will provide loans, grants and rental assistance," said Cook, adding, "It will be such a nice addition."
   Individual homes will be built on other properties. "We will probably be looking at other ways of bringing a home that is affordable to people who earn less than the area median income," said Cook.
   The median income for a family of four is $48,300. CORHA's target market is households at 50 to 80 percent of the median -- $24,150 to $38,650 for a four-person household, she said.
   In order to make certain funds available, the property will have to be annexed into the city, City Administrator Mike Morgan pointed out.
   "It's in the urban growth boundary, so it's already planned for eventual annexation into the city," Morgan said. "If it's in the UGB, it's already subject to city standards."
   The Urban Growth Area Management agreement between the city and county states that areas that are outside the city limits, but inside the UGB, are subject to all conditions that apply to city construction and zoning standards, he said.
   "On a new house, for example, the county doesn't require attached garages," said Morgan. "We do."
   Although the county has not helped finance the existing properties, "What we have committed to is working on this with CORHA and the city and using our revolving economic development loan fund for short-term financing for CORHA to acquire properties," said County Administrator Matthew Birnie. "Once they acquire the properties, they can apply for grants to pay the county back and to build."
   Another chunk of money may soon be available to help rehabilitate the area, according to Bob Repine, state director of Housing and Community Services.
   A couple years ago, Repine's agency approved a $400,000 loan for the Opportunity Foundation to clean up the former site of the Madras Main Street Garage and Ron McDonald Chevrolet at Fifth and B streets.
   The Opportunity Foundation cleaned up the site, but changed its mind about building a work center on the site, and as a result, left $369,000 unused.
   "I think there's a way to facilitate keeping the remaining $369,000 of that money in this community," Repine said, when he met with local leaders last month. "We have a great opportunity for a partnership here."
   Repine is expected to address the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners at 11 a.m., at its regular meeting today, Feb. 9, in the commission meeting room at 66 S.E. D St., in the courthouse annex.
   "The energy and the commitment is beginning to line up," said Morgan. "When you have that kind of commitment out there, we're going to make a difference."