Commissioners embrace Ashland welcome-center plan

Jackson County commissioners Wednesday embraced a proposal to build a welcome center just south of Ashland, but added conditions to a project that has raised the ire of nearby residents.

In a unanimous vote, the Board of Commissioners decided the Oregon Department of Transportation will need to get the Ashland City Council's approval to connect the building to the city's sewer and water systems before construction can proceed.

Commissioner Dave Gilmour expressed the most reservations about the 18-acre rest stop and welcome center, which would be located at milepost 12.5, just south of Crowson Road in Ashland.

"We have to look seriously at whether we have adequate sewer and water (capacity) for this facility," Gilmour said.

ODOT has estimated the project will cost $5.5 million to $6.5 million. It will have freeway on- and off-ramps for travelers heading north on Interstate 5.

Allen Baker, one of about 35 residents who came to the meeting to speak against the project, said of the commissioners' vote, "I think we're disappointed, but not particularly surprised."

People who live near the site have said the welcome center would bring more noise, increase chances of traffic accidents and potentially attract more criminals to their neighborhood.

Baker said opponents of the project intend to continue their fight.

They will take the matter to the Ashland City Council or to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.

In addition to rest rooms and landscaping, the site would include a $2 million lodge-style building funded separately by Travel Oregon and the Oregon Travel Information Council.

No trucks would be allowed at the site.

Tim Fletcher, project manager for ODOT, said the requirement to get Ashland's approval for sewer and water will be time-consuming to resolve.

"This is certainly a significant hurdle to pass," he said.

Fletcher said his department already has discussed the project with Ashland officials, and it has had the city's support in the past.

"There is nothing that would indicate the City Council would not approve a previous decision," he said.

Ashland previously has approved water and sewer connections outside its urban growth boundaries, Fletcher said.

In January, the Ashland City Council voted, 4-2, against asking the county to block the project on land-use issues.

The 18-acre property along Interstate 5 has an artesian well that produces about 100 gallons a minute, but Fletcher said ODOT would prefer to connect to city water because it would require less maintenance and insure consistent water quality. Most rest areas rely on well water, however, Fletcher said.

The county has held 16 public hearings on the welcome center request, generating almost 4,000 pages of documentation.

"This is one of the most voluminous hearing processes in a long time," Commissioner C.W. Smith said.

Smith said he recently made a trip to Minnesota, stopping at welcome centers in each state. "It was a very welcome sight," he said.

Commissioners have heard from ODOT and the opponents, but Smith said they haven't heard from motorists who drive into the state, who don't get a much of a welcome right now.

Commissioner Jack Walker said he couldn't find a single reason to deny the welcome center based on the state laws that the board considered.

He said the proposal to build the welcome center at this location has been widely reported since 1997, so he didn't buy the suggestion by many neighbors that they didn't know about it.

"If they weren't aware, they should have been," he said.

Commissioner Gilmour said he liked the idea of a welcome center, but he thought ODOT should have located it on the south side of the Siskiyou Summit.

He said having rest stops every 60 miles or so is particularly important for a lot of people, particularly those who need to use a toilet a little more frequently than they used to.

"The cumulative age of our prostates is 190 years," he said, referring to himself and the two other commissioners.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or

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