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Lawsuit threatens Sunrise highway project

by: PHOTO BY: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Business owners are holding up the entire $1.4 billion 'Sunrise' project to build a new highway between Highway 224 and 162nd Avenue. If they are successful in their legal actions to stop the associated reconstruction of Lawnfield Road near 97th Avenue, it would probably kill the project.Clackamas County moved ahead this month with a portion of a multimillion-dollar road project between Milwaukie and Happy Valley, despite legal efforts by a group of area property owners.

by: PHOTO BY: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Closure of the railroad crossing on Lawnfield Avenue is on hold after legal actions forced a June hearing to reconsider plans.Business owners would hold up the entire $1.4 billion “Sunrise” project to build a new highway between Highway 224 and 162nd Avenue if they are successful in their legal actions to stop the associated reconstruction of Lawnfield Road near 97th Avenue.

On Feb. 5, the county decided go for bids on its approximately $4.76 million project before ODOT had even started the highway’s main portion, which potentially puts the county on the hook without reimbursement.

“It’s risky for us to extend our financial interests without knowing that we’re going to have the funding for it,” said Commissioner Tootie Smith.

A legal action has forced a June hearing to reconsider the order to close the railroad crossing at Lawnfield. A group of business owners in the area is pushing for court action that could be delayed through next year. County Attorney Scot Sideras also told commissioners that he had heard from the businesses’ attorney who “mentioned” the possibility of a stop-work order.

“How credible that is, how probable that is — that’s something that’s very speculative,” Sideras said.

John DiLorenzo, attorney for the business owners, declined to comment on whether he’d file a stop-work order. “We’re going to pursue every legal and political avenue open to us,” he said.

County Chairman John Ludlow wondered why the business owners were putting the whole project in jeopardy seemingly over a few seconds in delay for their delivery trucks.

“Do they want to return to the Stone Age here?” Ludlow asked.

The Schnitzer family, owners of steel-manufacturing interests, and Terry Emmert, a major property owner throughout the county, are among the business owners fighting the construction. DiLorenzo noted their opposition to railroad-crossing closure is due to more than delay for their delivery trucks. He plans to argue in court that there is no safety issue, and that the railroad crossing is part an overall land-use issue improperly handled.

“If you close that railroad crossing, then we’re afraid that we’re going to become the dark side of the moon,” he said. “ODOT has said that ‘this project is too far along, so we’re not changing anything,’ which is an incredibly arrogant position.”

Effort afoot to move money?

Industrial owners have a little island surrounded by growing residential and commercial areas, and for some years they have become increasingly worried about development encroaching on their ability to do business.

“It could also be tenants saying that we don’t want to be located here anymore because you’re isolating us,” DiLorenzo said.

Mike Bezner, the county’s transportation engineering manager, also saw a “worst-case” scenario if “ODOT wanted to play extreme hardball with the county,” then the state transportation agency could take the money away from an existing county project.

Recalling how the project slipped to the backburner before, Commissioner Paul Savas argued that the businesses have benefitted from the sequencing of the project. In order to “pull this off,” he advocated that the county use all possible strategies.

“This is a very, extremely important project for Clackamas County, and is frankly one of the major reasons that I ran to be a county commissioner,” Savas said.

The project manager agreed with Savas about the importance of the county’s success in court.

“If the railroad-crossing order, for whatever reason, is not approved or does not go in the project’s favor, it is unclear what would happen to the project as a whole, because that’s a pretty important component,” Bezner said. “In addition, there are rumors that will not go away that there is an effort afoot from somewhere to try to take the money — the $100 million in JTA funds that has been allotted to this project — and move it elsewhere, which a delay due to railroad proceeding or whatever could potentially help that effort.”

by: PHOTO BY: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Trucks frequently travel to industrial businesses on Lawnfield Avenue that are suing the county to protect their access despite a billion-dollar highway project.



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