Jackson County Planning Commissioners on Thursday closed the public hearing on the proposed Siskiyou Rest Area and Welcome Center after three meetings, and opened it up for the Oregon Department of Transportation's rebuttal.




ODOT is asking the commission to amend the Jackson County Comprehensive Plan to allow the 18-acre rest area and welcome center in an exclusive farm use zoned district. The welcome center, slated for the northbound side of I-5 between mile markers 12 and 13, would sit about half a mile from the Oak Knoll subdivision.




More than 40 people, mostly in opposition to the rest area, turned out for the hearing that lasted nearly five hours.




Oak Knoll subdivision residents and other neighbors close to the proposed rest area again cited concerns over noise, safety, crime and declining property values as their main reasons for not supporting ODOT's plan, and questioned the necessity of a welcome center.




Commissioners also heard from representatives with Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland Chamber of Commerce, Ashland Springs Hotel and Travel Oregon who support the rest area and welcome center, citing increased tourism dollars into Southern Oregon.




Jeff Hampton, policy and research manager with Travel Oregon, said tourism accounts for $8.3 billion in the state annually and said a welcome center so close to the California border is a strategic location to increase those dollars.




He quoted a survey that indicated how effective welcome centers were in bringing tourism dollars into the state because it influences their travel decisions.




Commissioner Dan Greene said, "We heard testimony before that welcome centers are dinosaurs. You just quoted a 1993 OSU study that says the impact of welcome centers on tourism in Oregon. A lot has occurred since that time regarding how we get information. So do you have a more recent study that would support what you're saying?"




Hampton said he would look into providing a more recent study, and added that he did think welcome centers were still a viable way to capture tourism.




"It may not be the primary driver, but it can fill in the gaps of travelers' itineraries," he said.




Allen Baker, president of the Oak Knoll Home Owners Association, quoted from Oregon Travel's own Web site that said 88 percent of travelers make travel plan over the Internet.




Rebuttal




Commissioners closed the public hearing around 12:45 p.m. and opened up rebuttal from ODOT representatives.




Mark Greenfield, a land use consultant from Portland hired by ODOT for this project, addressed some of the concerns brought up during the public hearings.




He entered a new noise survey into the record that states no significant noise impacts from the rest area would occur in the next 20 years.




"Any increased noise will come from increased traffic on the interstate, not from the rest area," said Greenfield.




Greenfield also said in the past 10 years, of the 1100 crimes that were reported at rest areas in Oregon, half occurred in the Portland and Salem areas.




"So this problem is not as big of an issue as many believe," he said. "I also don't think people are going to park at the rest area, climb a six foot high fence, hike a half mile to the Oak Knoll area, steal something and then hike back to their vehicle."




Some of the people in attendance said they might support the welcome center, but wondered if the rest area also had to be included.




Greenfield entered a letter from the Federal Highways that said the rest area that used to be higher up on the Siskiyou Pass must be replaced.




"It doesn't say we should replace it or that it would be nice if we replaced it. It says we have to replace it," he said.




The commissioners voted unanimously to continued the rebuttal around 2 p.m., setting the next meeting at 9 a.m. on June 12. The commission will accept written testimony until June 27 and said they hope to start deliberations on Aug. 14.




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