By Dave DeLuca
Most people would agree that a dedicated bike trail connecting Albany and Corvallis is a good idea. A 9.5-mile-long, multimodal path has been planned to connect the two cities, but Benton County needs to apply for grants to pay for it. This summer, the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) offered a $2 million grant to pay for the construction of a two-mile stretch of the path to run from Independence Highway to Scenic Drive. But there’s a catch. The funding agreement must be signed by Feb. 21. Also, the county has to finish the designated stretch of the project by the end of 2016. If those two time frames are not met, ODOT could rescind the funding. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. Benton County doesn’t own the land where it wants to place the multipurpose path.
The Benton County Public Works Department has applied for a conditional use permit from the Benton County Planning Commission. Several public hearings were held by the commission in December and January. A small group of supporters of the trail project testified that commuting bikers would benefit from a safer option than riding on the shoulders of busy Highway 20. The argument was also made that a safer and more pleasant bike trail would encourage some commuters to go by bike instead of car. This would have an overall positive environmental effect. The supporters, however, were vastly outnumbered by those who testified against the project.
The majority of those speaking out in opposition were landowners who farm the land the proposed trail would bisect. They argued that granting right-of-way access across their land would divide their farms and greatly disrupt operations. Furthermore, they contended that users of the proposed path would be exposed to potentially dangerous farm equipment and chemicals. The final speaker to testify was attorney Ed Schultz. He was hired by a group of farmers directly affected by the potential path. Schultz argued that the permit sought by Benton County officials failed to meet state laws and county codes. For that reason, he argued, his clients would have grounds for appeal should the permit be granted. The sheer volume of public testimony along with the statements made by Schultz successfully caused the Planning Commission to delay deliberations on the matter.
As it stands now, the commission will not meet again until Feb. 17. Should a permit be granted, Public Works will still have a chance to make their first deadline of signing a funding agreement with ODOT by Feb. 21. However, Schultz has indicated publicly that his clients plan to use all available legal means to delay the trail project moving forward.
The county does have one last option for acquiring land for their path. The County Commissioners office has stated that they would consider claiming the land as eminent domain. But would they risk potential public backlash by stating that a bike trail is more important than the rights of some landowners? Only time will tell.