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Farmworker Housing Raises Concerns

Residents voice misgivings about proposal

INDEPENDENCE -- A planned 42-unit housing development on Gun Club Road for low-income farmworkers has some local citizens worried about potential crowding and traffic problems in their neighborhood and the overall impacts on the city.

Community members have also criticized the two organizations in charge of the project, the Farmworker Housing Development Corporation of Woodburn and Newberg-based CASA of Oregon, for not notifying neighborhood residents before moving forward with the design process.

FHDC officials purchased the 3.72 acre parcel this spring and will manage the complex when it's completed. CASA is coordinating the construction of the $6 million project, which could break ground next year.

The two groups presented preliminary site plans and designs at an informational meeting July 22, where many of the almost 30 in attendance voiced a variety of concerns regarding the complex, from flooding because of its location near Ash Creek to whether or not the housing community is exempt from property taxes.

Many citizens said they had only learned about the development a week or two before the presentation and were frustrated that officials had not contacted them in person.

Others took exception with how quickly the project has progressed, from the purchase of the land a few months ago to the site plan displayed at the meeting.

Raul Pe¤a, whose property borders the site, said he was angry that CASA and FHDC representatives had site plans and designs for the homes drawn up before the community was given an opportunity to speak out.

"I read in the paper last week that you were looking for the community's blessing," he said. "But common courtesy and common respect would have been for you come and ask us first 'What do you want to see here?' instead of 'This is what is going to be put in the neighborhood.'"

Patrick Melendy, who lives across the street from the site, said when he first contacted CASA, officials represented that organization as in charge of the project, and didn't mention that FHDC would be managing the complex.

"I had to peel back layers of veneer in order to get the truth," he said.

Peter Hainley, executive director of CASA, said there was no intention to mislead anyone.

He said architects had been working on preliminary plans throughout the month, but had only finished them a few days prior to the meeting to give citizens something on which to base their opinions.

"By no means are we planning on moving forward with that exact plan to the city," he said, noting that the concerns would be considered in future renderings of the development. "We had the meeting to make sure we got the community's input."

Melendy said the layout showed several dwellings in spots where clusters of trees in the city's last standing oak veranda currently exist.

Melendy said the previous property owner, Ken Perkins of Independence, took great pains to spare the trees when he was trying to build a traditional apartment complex that had the same number of units, but fewer buildings on the land.

FHDC purchased the parcel when those plans fell through.

"I would be pleased if they could restore the layout to the original one that had been planned there a year ago," he said, "because it was supported by the neighboring property owners who agreed to be annexed into the city -- based on the layout that Ken Perkins put together."

Several citizens said the current site plan had too homes packed together and that it removed many of the natural buffers that separated the development from the surrounding properties.

FHDC officials estimate 230 farmworkers and their families could live at the complex. Some citizens said that would cause the already existing traffic problems on Gun Club Road to grow.

Elaine Stuart said she worried about the effect on the police department, schools and city services.

"Have you done a study regarding the impacts of this?" she said. "The infrastructure of Independence is very important and we need to look at that."

Kevin Sicard, the only resident who voiced support for the site plan, said that opponents didn't have the right to dictate the appearance of the property.

"It's private property and they have the right to develop it as they want," he said. "They're allowed to build 42 units there, you can't just say 'I want it less developed.'"

Terry Richards, a general contractor, wanted to know why the cost to build each unit was $143,000. That's much higher, he said, than what most builders would charge.

He was also concerned that the city wouldn't be collecting property taxes on the development, which will receive most of its funding through low-income tax credits through the state.

Hainley said Oregon has established laws that grant exemptions on property taxes for farmworker housing. If officials are given an exemption, they'd pay an amount based on the net income of the development.

He said rising construction costs, several fees required on housing funded by federal programs, and reserves for operation and replacement were some of items reflected in the cost.

The complex's community center -- that include space for educational programs for tenants and a computer lab -- also figures largely into estimates, Hainley said.

Henry Hill teacher Adrian Castro said housing for low-income farmworkers and the educational services provided through the development would help create a more stable learning environment for the children of local farmworkers.

"I hope that because you had opposition here today that you don't stop developing the project," he told FHDC and CASA officials.

"I think this housing project really considers their needs," he also said, " and many times, migrant families are overlooked in their own communities."

Melendy, a former civil rights worker, said he believed that more housing for low-income farmworkers could be a real benefit to Polk County but added that citizens, especially neighbors to the development, need to be kept in the loop.

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