The Jackson County Planning Commission continues its public hearing Thursday morning on the Oregon Department of Transportation's proposed Siskiyou Welcome Center and Rest Area on the northbound side of I-5 between mile markers 12 and 13.

The 18-acre center will feature a lodge-style welcome center and semi trucks will not be allowed. ODOT is proposing upgrading the weigh station near mile marker 17 with a restroom facility for semi trucks.

Last month about 40 people in opposition to the rest stop signed up to speak at the hearing in Medford, but due to time constraints, only 10 people were heard.

Tim Fletcher, project manager for ODOT's southern division, said most of the opposition was coming from Oak Knoll and Crowson Road neighbors, but there are a number of people who support the project.

"We're trying to be responsive to the neighbors' concerns," Fletcher said. "It's not that these concerns are falling on deaf ears."

Allen Baker, president of the Oak Knoll Home Owners Association, and Dan Folliard, chair of the ad hoc committee on proposed rest area, have been the most vocal in their opposition to ODOT's plans.

Folliard has several reasons for not embracing the welcome center. He said connecting to Ashland's water supply would create a negative impact on the city's water reserves, especially during times of drought.

The city of Ashland agreed to allow the facility to use its water and sewer systems. Fletcher said the old rest stop, which was closed several years ago due to safety concerns, used water from a well, but the new facility will use water from Ashland.

"The city evaluated the water usage needs of the facility and apparently didn't see an issue and said they can provide it," Fletcher said.

Jim Olson, interim public works director, said they compared water usage at the Suncrest Rest Area near Talent, which uses approximately 2,400 gallons of water per day, and didn't think that would tax Ashland's water reserves.

Olson also said that during drought restrictions, only irrigation is affected.

Fletcher said the rest area would use low-flow toilets and would be landscaped with native plants natural to the area.

"Once the plants have been established, we'll turn the water supply off," he said. "It's not our intent to create lush, green landscaping."

Folliard is also concerned about how the facility would negatively impact Ashland's ability to treat wastewater at its wastewater treatment facility.

Fletcher said that will not be an issue because the same sewer line used at the previous rest area would be tapped into again with the new facility.

Folliard said Ashland is already "out of compliance with DEQ regulations" in regard to its discharge from the treatment plant, which Olson denied.

Olson said the city is in compliance with the current DEQ permit and will be upgrading the system later this year.

Crime

Baker and Folliard are concerned that crime at the proposed rest area, which is a half mile from the Oak Knoll subdivision, could spill into the neighborhood.

Folliard said in his e-mail, "At no other rest stop in Oregon is the rest area on I-5 this close to a community."

Fletcher disagreed.

"Suncrest (near Talent) is less than a quarter mile from a neighborhood and the Balldock Rest Area, near Wilsonville, is about 2,400 feet from a residential area," he said. "We've contacted the Oregon State Police to see if crime is taking place at these rest stops and if the crimes are spilling over into the neighborhoods. There doesn't appear to be anything indicating that crime is spilling over into these neighborhoods."

Merging into traffic

Folliard and Baker also contend that the ramp exiting the rest area is not of sufficient length for vehicles to reach the proper speed to merge into interstate traffic.

"At that site all vehicles are carrying a deadly momentum (by coming down the mountain) that would threaten each and every vehicle leaving the rest area," Folliard said.

Fletcher said the road exiting the rest area is more than long enough and the grade of the ramp is such that drivers wouldn't have any problem reaching operating speed.

Not invited

Baker said ODOT has never sat down and met with neighbors to address their concerns about the project.

"They've met with the state, the government task force, tourism groups and the Ashland City Council. But no one from ODOT has even made an attempt to meet with us," he said.

Fletcher said three Oak Knoll Association members met with ODOT on Feb. 5 at their office in White City and that a local meeting was organized for March 14, when about 15 neighbors attended.

Folliard and Baker further are concerned that only a handful of neighbors were invited to the March meeting orchestrated by state representatives Alan Bates and Peter Buckley. ODOT representative met with the legislators and neighbors to discuss the proposed project and discuss neighbors' concerns.

Mary Pat Parker, director of public relations and marketing with the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, said that when she realized ODOT was using an old mailing list, she personally mailed out nearly 100 additional invitations to people in that area.

Tourism dollars

Parker sympathizes with the neighbors' concerns.

"This is a really emotional issue and any change tends to make people fearful," she said. "But I'm really disappointed because what is getting lost in all this is the economic benefits to both Ashland and Southern Oregon."

An Oregon Travel impact study conducted in 2005 indicated that tourism is one of the most significant contributors to the Oregon economy, adding 1,500 jobs to the state each year and generating a substantial economic impact to the region.

Parker said that the old welcome center served approximately 80,000 visitors in a seven-month period. The current welcome center, which operates out of the EconoLodge off Exit 19, serves just more than 12,000.

Parker said the current welcome center isn't at a convenient location and isn't as visible as the old center or the proposed new one.

"I think it's important that travelers get tourism information about Ashland and Southern Oregon before they've passed Ashland," she said. "This welcome center would have a tremendous economic impact to this area."

The public hearing will be held at the Jackson County Planning Commission meeting Thursday at 9 a.m. at the Jackson County Court House, 10 S. Oakdale Ave., Medford.

Reach reporter at 482-3456 x226.