Much ado about a road
Getting someone else to pay for a project makes good fiscal sense
But to say you are going to make development pay its own way is one thing. The devil, as always, is in the details. The recent flap within the county court over what to do at the corner of Alfalfa Road and Powell Butte Highway highlights some of the challenges that accompany the crafting of exactions.
In the case of the Powell Butte Highway, Brasada Ranch, Crook County's first destination resort, was required in a planning commission decision five years ago to improve sight distance at the corners where Shumway Road and Alfalfa Road intersect the Powell Butte Highway. To satisfy this condition, Brasada contributed cash to make the needed "improvement." Five years have gone by as various engineers, residents and a committee have weighed in with different ideas about what that improvement looks like.
One idea is to soften the radius of the corner, and call it good. On the other end of the idea spectrum is an idea to rebuild the corner completely in such a way that it meets the specifications of the American Society of Highway and Traffic Engineers - the "gold standard" of traffic safety.
Underlying all this discussion has been the problem of getting the necessary right of way to do anything. The existing right of way is inadequate to undertake any improvement to the corner, and since the county generally opposes using its condemnation authority to take private property if an alternative can be negotiated, the project has been stalled while everyone involved kept talking. Meanwhile, the price of construction continued to climb.
Recently, a fortunate confluence of events put new life into the project. After much haggling, a willing property owner in the area finally stepped forward and named his price to sell the right of way needed to fully correct the corner once and for all. Meantime, Brasada Ranch ran up against an important deadline: In order to move forward with its next phase, the site distance correction must be implemented. In other words, the county now finds itself with a deep-pocketed developer looking to find a solution to a problem for which a solution has just conveniently presented itself. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what to do next.
Brasada was invited back to the bargaining table and asked to contribute additional dollars to purchase the needed right of way at the price requested by the seller ($156,000). Because the cost of construction has escalated beyond the county's original construction estimates, Brasada was asked to pay the full bill for constructing the corner to an engineered standard (estimated at approximately $500,000). Since Brasada would now be doing the work, the county agreed to return the $393,266 originally paid by Brasada and dedicated to corner improvement. For its part, the county agreed to pay $15,000 in county funds. So let's do the math:
$156,000 (property acquisition)
- $393,266 (paid by Brasada
already for the project)
- $15,000 (county portion)
$247,734 (savings to Crook County)
The math appears to me to indicate that Crook County gets a fully engineered corner at Alfalfa and Powell Butte Highway approaching at cost of $650,000 for paying $15,000. The county saves $247,734 over the cost of building such a corner itself, assuming county forces could mobilize before construction costs rise again. That seems like fiscally responsible and prudent use of taxpayer dollars to me, unless one is really convinced, as one of my fellow commissioners is that a corner built to a lesser standard is a good idea on a major travel route that continues to experience growth.
That does leave the problem of what to do in the future about the corner of Shumway Road and Powell Butte Highway. During the last round of discussion on this corner, residents produced ODOT and State Police reports indicating that the accident rate at the existing corner is not out of line with what one would expect on a rural highway. Based on the data, it would seem that the problem isn't now; it's a problem likely to emerge, in the future as the area continues to grow. This was helped when the county planning commission in its last approval of a Brasada Ranch development phase, further restricted access onto Shumway from Brasada. So if it's safe, today, it will likely continue to be safe for a few years to come.
That gives us additional time to find a willing seller at the corner who will work with the county to dedicate the right of way to make an improvement. At the moment, as anyone who has ever driven by the "Save My Farm" signs in the neighborhood knows, there is not a willing seller who will convey that right of way, but things change. Measure 37 claims in the area continue to pile up. Another destination resort is in the hearing stages before the planning commission, with more potentially in the wings. So it seems likely there will be a future opportunity to get the right of way needed without having to condemn private property to do it and it seems very likely there will be an opportunity to impose exactions proportionate to the impact of proposed development when the need for a corner repair becomes more urgent.
In the meantime, I'm looking forward to getting at least one corner repaired and made safer for the traveling public.
Transportation improvements occur one road and one corner at a time as cash and opportunity allow. It's a process. I'm not willing to make two substandard corners or to trample on someone's private property rights by exercising the county''s condemnation authority until there is no other choice. Time is on the county's side. Likewise, the county has an immediate opportunity to fix one corner, and someone else is willing to pay for the fix. That seems prudent to me.
The Court is not in full agreement on how to approach this, I understand. I understand, commend and share my fellow commissioner's desire to make an improvement to both corners. However, I am inclined to think that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
If you know you're going to need something in the future, the course of fiscal responsibility, it seems to me, is to get what you need when you can and when you've got someone else on the hook to pay for it.