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TRAMMART NEWS SERVICE

INDEPENDENCE — With only about a third of 2021 gone, Independence already has a milestone to celebrate — and a reason to mourn.

The Independence Heritage Museum is scheduled to move into its new location soon, a refurbished building downtown. However, Olga the osprey has disappeared from her nest, just as her mate Ollie did last year. As this river city continues the countdown to summer, other news is on the way, too.

A new housing subdivision

A 67-lot subdivision in west Independence by Talmadge Road got the stamp of approval from city planning commissioners recently — but not before the lack of a park with a play area became a point of discussion about the new neighborhood.

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Without such a designated park, “I just worry that we lose the opportunity to make it a good neighborhood that has places for kids to be,” said Planning Commissioner Rebecca Jay, before the vote.

Seven acres of wetland will be left intact by the project — open space that was cited both by Fred Evander, city planner, and Gordon King, the developer, as preserving a large swath of the property.

“We thought this really is an opportunity, one time, to get this much dedicated to a sort of centralized park area — or a master park — that I think is going to have a lot of potential,” said King, explaining that some of the wetland might be utilized as a playing field for a sport like soccer.

Jay countered that “wetlands aren’t something that could be built on, anyway” due to laws protecting them.

King answered that “even though we couldn’t have built on it, we certainly could have mitigated part of it.”

Under city code, a developer is required to donate slightly more than six percent of the land or to pay 13% of the land’s market value before being granted needed permits. In this case, the wetland was accepted by the city as the requisite land donation, Evander noted.

A “pocket park” suggested by Jay wasn’t immediately ruled out as a future addition. However, Planning Commissioner Kate Schwarzler said adding parks boils down to a matter of “budget constraint.” Though she expressed sympathy for the desire to have a park, city parks “are surprisingly expensive to put in.”

And, despite the fact that the open space there is technically a wetland, it could still be a “great amenity for the neighborhood,” Schwarzler said.

The traffic plan also drew criticism — from Polk County Public Works’ director, Todd Whitaker. The traffic patterns, as presented to him, failed to take into account the probable southbound traffic on Talmadge Road, Whitaker asserted.

“I am concerned about impacts to the intersection of Stapleton/99W and Stapleton/Corvallis Road,” Whitaker wrote in a letter to the city staff. Evander told commissioners he felt the concern raised by Whitaker had been adequately addressed in the traffic study.

The storm water from the new development, which eventually will go to the South Fork of Ash Creek, will travel by storm drain to the other side of 13th Street, said Steve Ward, the city’s engineer. Before flowing into a drainage ditch and into the creek, it will first be treated at a water-quality site along the way.

When representatives of the Ash Creek Water Control District (ACWCD) were asked about this aspect of the project, Dan Farnworth, chair of ACWCD, responded that he hoped the developers and commissioners would take into account flooding on Ash Creek, its repercussions and mitigations, particularly flood zones, swales, permeable surfaces, bank shaping and planting and other low-impact development.

As the construction moves forward, some residents of Independence worry that they will lose what some regard as their city’s countryside along Talmadge Road.

However, Suzy Weston, whose property sits next to the new planned development, said she’s not going anywhere any time soon. Her ducks, chickens, cows and other farm animals, which can be seen wandering her acreage, will remain a sight for passengers in passing cars.

“I want to stay here as long as I can,” she said.

Parking problems probed

As the Independence Landing apartments and town homes at the riverfront fill up with occupants, the downtown parking squeeze threatens to create a challenge that cannot be ignored.

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That was the general message earlier this year when Police Chief Robert Mason presented several proposed parking-code changes to the city council, prompting so many questions by councilors that the suggested revisions were postponed until this spring. Though currently there seems to be adequate public parking in some lots – the one at Riverview Park is hardly ever at capacity – the chief warned that’s likely to change in the near future.

That parking lot, along with the one behind the Elks Lodge on Main Street and the parking areas around the Independence Civic Center, may be impacted by new residents.

“Looking forward, we are going to have parking issues in all three of those locations, we are certain, when all of the housing that’s going up down there is occupied,” he said.

City Councilor Dawn Hedrick-Roden agreed that one problem already is surfacing: sidewalk blockage by cars in driveways along Osprey Lane. She expressed uncertainty about how that situation could be rectified – the driveways along that street are comparatively short.

“It seems interesting that we’d design an area where they couldn’t park in the driveway,” she said.

However, Osprey Lane is “not unique,” Mason pointed out. The same situation can be seen across town, in neighborhoods old and new.

“We’ve done a lot of what we call education, to try to get people not to block sidewalks,” he said. “It really is dangerous to be blocking the pedestrian paths, forcing people either out into the roadway to walk or obstructing their ability to see.”

“I live in a new development and we already are having parking problems,” concurred Councilor Shannon Corr. There are multiple cars at many homes in her neighborhood, she said.

The downtown area has several areas of public parking, including by the library, behind the old city hall and at the movie theater. However, the situation needs to be addressed, Mason said, adding that he planned to redouble efforts for public feedback on the matter.

Wildfires appear likely

A shift in climate — higher temperatures and lower moisture, compared with previous years — is creating conditions for possible wildfire outbreaks, which are anticipated earlier than ever. Additionally, the ice storm of this past winter increased the risk, too, according to Ben Stange, fire chief of Polk County Fire District No. 1.

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Fire Chief Ben Stange

Piles of dead branches strewn across the landscape provide dry “ladder fuel,” which can enable fire to spread quickly into trees and across fields, he said.

Evidence of felled trees can be found in Ash Creek. Downed trees from the ice storm this winter have caused “clogs” in the waterway, perhaps most visibly at the 16th Street bridge on Gun Club Road and at Riverview Park.

“It’s a big jumble there,” said Dan Farnworth, the chair of the Ash Creek Water Control District (ACWCD) at a meeting of the ACWCD board earlier this month.

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For a potential forecast of wildfire incidence, Independence residents need look no further than their neighboring state to the south, Stange suggested.

“California is a great indicator,” he said.

For instance, during a December three years ago, Stange was stunned to learn of a wildfire threat in California in the middle of winter.

“This was the month that we sent wildfire crews to California, highlighting the fact that the west was no longer anticipating ‘fire season’ but transitioning to the reality that ‘fire season’ was essentially all year,” he said.

Now, in the mid-Willamette Valley, there are more frequent spring “burn bans,” which prohibit using fire to destroy debris. These bans haven’t yet prohibited briquette-fueled barbecues or fires for warming and celebration purposes, Stange noted. However, this past April, such a ban was instituted — a seemingly unprecedented move in the Willamette Valley. “I have never heard of this before, as early as it happened,” he said.

Even in cases in which raging wildfires are far from town, they can have an impact, he added. Utilities may be shut down and air quality can deteriorate to unsafe levels for any outdoor activity, just as it did last year during the Santiam fire. In fact, the day may come when utilities are periodically and preventively shut down in parts of Oregon during hot, dry times -- power lines can ignite branches and brush, he pointed out.

During both the ice storm and the wildfires near Salem last year, the Independence Hotel proved a valuable resource for those displaced from homes and seeking shelter, Stange said. Recently, fire personnel utilized the apartments near the hotel for training purposes.

Preparation is key: The way a wildfire is fought has evolved into a fine-tuned process of determining defensibility, Stange explained.

“We have extremely selective algorithms we have worked out,” he said.

Homes with metal roofs and lawns with less vegetation are more easily saved; those with traditional roofing, with leaves in gutters and trees immediately next to the house are far less defensible, he said.

In a wind-fed fire, the crews are called upon to engage in such triage to preserve time and resources, he added.

The days of putting homes next to leafy woods may experience significant code changes, he predicted.

“I think insurance companies may drive this (trend),” he said. “They will be on the forefront of coding changes” that will help fire-proof homes and neighborhoods.

Leadership changes at MINET

During Don Patten’s recent announcement of his pending retirement as general manager of MINET, he identified two current administrators there as part of the succession team. He plans to step down by year’s end.

P.J. Armstrong, director of operations for the municipal fiberoptic company, is his choice to take over as general manager; John Cooper, the present finance director, already has been tapped to move up to chief financial officer.

They’re only the first of several title changes that will be taking place at MINET, Patten said. All employees who have been working as customer service representatives will transition into a new category: customer support specialists. The positions will be officially re-named this July. The action is being taken after a failed attempt by Patten to secure bonuses for MINET personnel earlier this year -- the board of directors voted down the proposed special allocation.

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Over the years, MINET has required annual subsidies by the cities that co-founded it. In the past, the company has been unable to fully pay the debt owed from the money borrowed to build it. However, this year, no such subsidy was needed. Asked if revenue assistance was likely to be requested in the future, Patten explained that predictions are difficult, “even in the best of times.”

With the battle against Covid-19 still underway, “we have yet to fully grasp every impact of a worldwide pandemic on our business results,” he stated. “But I feel confident in stating that, if there is a shortfall in our support of the cities’ debt relating to MINET in the fiscal year of 2021-22, it will be minimal.”

Another change is the addition of a woman, Monmouth City Manager Marty Wine, to the board, which has had only male members for many years. She will replace departing board member Steve Milligan, current county treasurer.

Patten, who joined the company at what has been reported as a financially troubled time in 2013, is leaving it in a far more stable condition, according to several board members.

Asked about his assessment of the team he built during his time at the helm of MINET, Patten said he considers it nothing like a traditional top-to-bottom hierarchy. Instead, it has become a group of people in common step with equal footing, “each of us striving toward a shared success story,” he said.

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