Wal-Mart hits roadblock

Oregon Department of Transportation vetoes ‘flawed’ stoplight plan

Another roadblock has been erected in Wal-Mart’s path to build a supercenter — and speculation has resurfaced that the business may move out of Hood River.

“We were certainly taken back by the Oregon Department of Transportation’s comments and are considering all options,” said Amy Hill, Wal-Mart spokesperson, after ODOT shot down the proposed location for a traffic signal on Tuesday.

“I didn’t get the impression there was much flexibility with ODOT on this issue,” said Eric Walker, county senior planner, who was present at the Expo Center meeting requested by Wal-Mart to clarify traffic and infrastructure issues involved with its application.

Hill said the company has not yet decided how to proceed with ODOT’s objection — which follows September’s recommendation by county planners that the site plans be denied because they did not adequately meet six key criteria. Hill would not deny or confirm the rumor that the existing 72,000-square foot store could move to The Dalles or another city if its bid for a 185,000-square foot supercenter is overturned.

Walker said if Wal-Mart decides to continue with its application, the first public hearing that was recently delayed until early January will likely be set back again. He said Wal-Mart could ask for more time to revise its traffic plan. Will Carey, county land-use attorney, recently explained that the review of design standards for the proposed development has to follow a more “flexible” process since the retail store is an outright permitted use on the 16 acres of commercial ground at the junction of Frankton and Country Club roads.

At issue this week was ODOT’s unofficial veto of Wal-Mart plans to shift the intersection of Country Club Road and West Cascade Avenue about 300 feet to the east. John Bosket, ODOT traffic engineer, told city, county and Wal-Mart officials at the Oct. 8 meeting that the proposed placement of the signal was “flawed.” He said the state agency had “grave concerns” about safety because of the potential for traffic backup since the stoplight would be located too near the Exit 62 freeway offramp. Because Cascade Avenue is part of the Historic Columbia River Highway, the ODOT advisory panel to oversee its protection had also registered concerns because the re-construction was inconsistent with the city’s transportation plan and design changes would fail to preserve the roadway’s character.

Bill Ciz, ODOT traffic engineering and operations manager, said the state agency is open to a discussion about relocating Country Club onto a public right of way from an old subdivision plat that runs along the current Stonehedge Gardens Restaurant driveway. That site would put the traffic light between 400-500 feet farther east than Wal-Mart’s current proposal and would dovetail with city plans to eventually construct a street at that location which linked with Fairview Drive.

“We are still willing to work with the developers and have been working with Wal-Mart’s traffic and engineering consultants very interactively,” Ciz said.

Wal-Mart will have to purchase additional properties and/or easements to accommodate the new placement of the intersection. ODOT is also recommending the company pay for bicycle and pedestrian improvements and an “island” landscaped with native plants. In addition to footing the estimated $1.2 million bill for the stoplight, Wal-Mart would be asked to fund an account for maintenance and mitigation that would offset changes to the historic highway.

This summer ODOT rejected Wal-Mart’s bid to mitigate the road widening of Cascade Avenue by spending $60,000 to build a wayside park between the existing intersection and the relocated crossing.

That park would have included interpretive signage, a picnic area and a small parking lot. However, ODOT officials expressed the same safety concerns over traffic congestion and asked that Wal-Mart provide money instead that could be used for other improvements, such as work on Westcliff Drive, an education curriculum or development of an interpretive plan.

This week Hill reiterated that 400 new retail jobs have been added to the 1,100 positions that existed in Hood River in 1991, just one year before the existing store opened.

She believes Wal-Mart has contributed to that total and plays a vital role in the local economy. The existing retail outlet in Hood River employs 156 full and part time workers and pays a wage that ranges between $6.75 and $16 per hour.

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