Development at Any Cost?

Capital Hill construction threatens neighborhood

By Kim Toner

In 2013 neighbors started to hear rumors about a proposed development at the top of Capital Hill in Eugene, adjacent to Hendricks Park. Tom and Cynthia Dreyer had purchased approximately 13 acres surrounding their properties, and proposed to sell lots for 30 to 40 homes to be built there. The property, at the top of the forested ridge, bordered Capital Drive and ran steeply downhill to meet the Ribbon Trail in Hendricks Park on its eastern boundary; it was a haven for wildlife and a conduit leading from the Ridgeline Trail system into Hendricks Park.

As rumor became fact, neighbors voiced concerns: the stability of the slope, the number of dwellings proposed, the lack of infrastructure to support the additional homes, the removal of trees on the ridgeline and threat to wildlife, traffic safety and emergency access on our narrow and winding roads. Neighbors organized a response committee to consider options for halting the project. The Fairmount Neighbors and Laurel Hill Valley Citizens became instrumental in our opposition to the proposed development.

There were meetings, work sessions and public hearings. Letters were written to the City Planning board and testimony was submitted voicing myriad concerns. The response committee submitted a document citing “serious short-term and long-term off-site impacts on traffic, noise, stormwater runoff and environmental quality.” A geologist presented extensive evidence of multiple previous landslides on the property. Excavating the steep slope would make it more unstable and landslides even more likely. 

Because of the site’s many difficulties, extraordinary measures are required for development: EWEB stated that the current infrastructure would be inadequate and a new water facility would need to be built to serve the development. The city’s department of traffic and roads decided that Capital Drive was too narrow to allow unhindered passage of large vehicles, so on-street parking was banned which has created difficulties for the current residents.

Eventually, after public hearings, decisions and an appeal to the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA), the city approved the application. Despite overwhelming opposition to the project by area residents citing safety concerns, serious off-site impacts and geological evidence of the dangers of building on such a steep slope, the Capital Hill PUD was going to be a reality. For the residents, the city’s decision appeared to prioritize development and property tax revenue above any of their concerns. 

Now, as I write this, the rumble of large trucks can be heard on the street below and diesel fumes hang in the air. The property (called “University Heights” in city documents) has had most of its trees and vegetation removed, and the formerly extensive wildlife has disappeared. Large trucks move constantly up and down the hill (on some days more than 120 of them) empty on their slow journey up and full of logs and debris going down. This grim parade happens every weekday between 7 am and 5 pm. 

The noise, dirt, fumes and dangerous road conditions all contribute to making our neighborhood unsafe and unlivable. The trucks are so large they straddle both lanes of Spring Boulevard and Capital Drive, making driving, walking and cycling hazardous. There have been some near misses already, and a serious accident is inevitable given the volume of construction traffic using our narrow roads. Only one route allows emergency vehicle access; therefore, if a fire occurs or an ambulance is needed, vehicles will encounter significant (and possibly fatal) delays. At the very least we should insist that safety procedures are followed by Branch Engineering and Wildish Construction; flaggers should be stationed along the truck route to reduce the risks in our neighborhood.

This scenario is playing out in other parts of Eugene, and in cities and towns across America. There is a constant tug of war between a drive for development and the needs of neighborhood residents. Should a large landowner or development company be allowed to dictate the future of a neighborhood, taking their profits with little regard for the damage they wreak? Apparently, the city of Eugene’s response to this question is “yes.”

We can’t change the decision the city has made, but we can certainly inform our public officials and the companies carrying out this work that the construction has caused an unsafe and unacceptable situation, and immeasurable damage to the environment. 

This is a cautionary tale: it’s time to reckon the real costs of unhindered development.

Kim Toner has a degree in education from Boston University; she has lived on Capital Hill for 26 years.