Marlin Avenue signal could put companies in jeopardy

WARRENTON -"Be careful what you wish for," goes the old maxim.

Concerned about the dangerous Marlin Avenue-U.S. Highway 101 intersection, Jill Storey, owner of the Dairy Queen on Marlin Avenue in Warrenton, wished for a traffic light there.

Now, Storey says the $1.8 million traffic light project is threatening her livelihood, and the Oregon Department of Transportation has invoked its power of eminent domain to seize a portion of her property.

"I'm ready to take ODOT to the mat," Storey says. "I don't want to, but I will if I have to."

She has retained a Portland law firm to seek an injunction to stop ODOT from taking ownership of six parking spaces directly in front of her restaurant, turning them into a frontage road, and re-creating them on the other side, so that Dairy Queen employees will have to cross a two-way street to take drive-thru customers their orders.

That's bad enough, Storey says, but in addition, the state plans to retain ownership of the parking spaces. That would put her out of compliance with the city of Warrenton's parking requirements, she says, and employees from the neighboring Vince Williams' car dealership could fill those parking spaces instead of her customers. And, Storey said, the new frontage road will benefit Williams' business to the detriment of her business.

She says there are other ways to provide access to the car dealership, but they aren't being considered.

"I can't be in limbo about the ownership of this parking," Storey says. "Those parking spots are vital to my future and to my business." Storey's court date is set for May 25, but in the meantime her lawyer is filing affidavits to prevent ODOT's contractor from coming on to her property Saturday, when work on that portion of the project is scheduled to begin.

"We deal with our attorney and he deals with Salem - that's where all the decisions are made," Storey says.

Contentious issues

The dispute is also affecting placement of the 30-foot tall Dairy Queen pole sign, which has to be moved Storey says ODOT wants it placed further back in her parking lot, but that's unacceptable. "Signage is everything. I need my sign out there in the new green space that this frontage road is going to create," Storey says.

Also unacceptable, Storey says, is ODOT's offer of approximately $89,000 for the property.

But as far as ODOT's concerned, the state already owns the property, according to ODOT's Paul Christiansen, project manager. "We've deposited funds to purchase that land - they haven't accepted yet," he said last week. "We own the land."

Unfortunately, it takes land to build highways, and there has to be a system in place to acquire it when negotiations break down, Christiansen said, referring to the power of eminent domain which allows the state to seize private property for the public good.

Storey says Christiansen doesn't really understand the parking situation. "Parking is not an issue for him. He says it's the state's land and they can go on it if they want to. We dispute that," says Storey.

Space needed

Meanwhile, car dealer Vince Williams says the frontage road is needed for big tractor-trailer rigs that deliver vehicles twice a month to his lot on the southwest corner of the 101 intersection, next door to Dairy Queen. He says those rigs and other large delivery trucks require the large turning radius the frontage road provides.

Like Storey, Williams supported the traffic light for safety reasons, but is upset about the magnitude of the project and its affect on his business. Ten years ago, the present entrance to his car lot was an approved curb cut on Marlin Avenue, Williams says. Now, state regulations say his driveway is too close to the intersection.

"For taking my driveway, they paid me $250," Williams says. He says his attorney advised him to take the deal or he would be shut down. "I didn't think I was big enough to fight the state of Oregon," he says. "ODOT's not flexible."

In Williams' opinion, ODOT could make the intersection work by using "a little bit of common sense." He sees no need to realign the Marlin Avenue, which now meets Highway 101 at something other than a 90 degree angle. To do that, ODOT is building a new Marlin, situated closer to the North Coast Fred Meyer. The old Marlin will be a green space, with a frontage road on the Dairy Queen and car dealership side.

"ODOT designers come from Salem," Williams says. "They don't give two hoots whether we stay in business or not. They can arbitrarily move on - our business and employees stay here."

Williams says his business, which opened in 1998, has 12 employees and an annual payroll of half a million dollars. Storey has 28 employees, 10 of them full time. The Warrenton Dairy Queen opened in 1997. Storey also owns the Astoria Dairy Queen, which has been in business for 30 years.

The other side

On the other side of Highway 101, Dave Van Osdol, owner of D K Window Works is losing his entire parking lot to the traffic light project. He says ODOT paid him $38,000 for the 100 by 40 foot property. Van Osdol's only parking possibility now for his four company vehicles and eight employees is 5 to 7 spaces that could be created on 11th Place between his window store and Papa Jack's, the farm store that recently re-opened on the opposite side of 11th Place.

Those spaces would be technically illegal, Van Osdol says, because they don't meet city of Warrenton parking requirements. However, he says on-street parking is the solution suggested by Warrenton's planning director, Patrick Wingard, who said he thinks a variance could be granted to Van Osdol because of his "unique circumstances."

Van Osdol says ODOT initially promised him a 30 foot driveway out to Marlin Avenue, but it won't be anywhere near that long. He says Marlin Avenue will be raised to a level 12 to 16 inches higher than his property, allowing rain water run-off to stream into his building. And, he says, a 100-by-100 foot piece of commercial property he owns behind his business, which formerly could be accessed from 11th Street, is now completely landlocked.

Doing their best?

Van Osdol says when the Warrenton City Commission approved the traffic light project, then-Mayor Jeff Hazen asked ODOT engineers to do their best to look after the businesses on Marlin Avenue. "And they explicitly said they would, but that has not been the case at all," he says.

Like Storey, who asked ODOT last year to try a temporary traffic light at the intersection, Van Osdol believes a much less grandiose project would have sufficed. "Install a light, some turn refuges, maybe some medians, and it would have been completely adequate for $150,000 as opposed to $2 million," Van Osdol says.

However, ODOT's Christiansen says squaring up Marlin Avenue's intersection with U.S. Highway 101 is an important component of the traffic light project. "Traffic volumes, speeds and types of vehicles dictate the geometry of the roadway," he says, adding that the current "skew" of the intersection impairs sight distance, making it more dangerous for motorists crossing the highway or turning onto it.

Christiansen says the new light will include left turn arrows for both Marlin and 101 and there will be some turn restrictions. The three traffic lights at Harbor, Neptune and Marlin will be interconnected, so motorists driving through at the posted speed limit will often hit green lights at all three intersections. At times when there's little or no traffic - such as during the night - when a vehicle does come along, Christiansen says traffic loops embedded in the pavement will sense it and try to give it green lights. Pedestrian safety will also be improved by pedestrian crosswalks with buttons to push to make the light change.

Aug. 31 target

Target date for the project to be completed is Aug. 31. In the meantime, Christiansen says access to businesses on Marlin Avenue will never be shut off completely.

That's cold comfort to Storey, who says drainage plans have changed and ODOT's now planning to tear up all of the parking for her building and dig a nine-foot trench.

"The deeper the trench, the longer they're on site, and the longer I'll be disrupted," she says. "People will drive by and go, 'We can't get in there,'" Storey says. "If we're going to be damaged this much, ODOT probably should have bought us out ... maybe that's what it's going to come to."

Storey says she understands ODOT has to work during the summer, but she has payments to make. She's already had to shut twice in the last two weeks, once for a broken water line and later for a gas line break, both caused by traffic light construction. She says her business does $500 an hour during peak times and she needs to be compensated for those losses.

"We had a dream to build this store and now it's our worst nightmare," says Storey. "I'm in a cash-flow business, and I'm scared to death."

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