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Planning hearing is expected to accelerate debate on raceway.

Byline: Karen McCowan The Register-Guard

COTTAGE GROVE - Gentlemen, start your engines - though you may have to let them idle a bit longer.

City residents finally can weigh in tonight on a zone change proposal filed a year ago to greatly expand the scope and scale of activities at the Cottage Grove Speedway and adjoining Western Oregon Exposition fairgrounds.

The proposal was tabled last June at the request of the applicants, who are back with a proposed mixed use master plan for the parcels that would allow year-round events and a sixfold increase in race attendance. A special public hearing on both proposals is scheduled before the Cottage Grove Planning Commission at 7:30 p.m.

But the city's planning department is not ready to make a staff recommendation on the plan for the 26-acre complex and will urge the commission to table both requests until next month. Community Development Director Howard Schesser said planners still await "peer review" of city studies examining the master plan's likely impact on area traffic and wetlands.

The hearing will open as advertised, however, so commissioners are likely to get an earful from speedway opponents as well as testimony from the project's applicants.

Attorney Bill Kloos will present the case for speedway owners Robert and Linda Leach of Cottage Grove and Russell and Lori Leach of Salem. He plans to introduce the application as simply an effort to continue a business that has been part of the city's culture and economy for decades, he said.

"I'm going to say, 'We have been here for 50 years, and we want to be here for another 50 years,' ' Kloos said.

Speedway critic Martin Kilmer sees the proposal very differently.

"What they're talking about is a huge, huge increase," he said. "What they're talking about is not part of the culture of Cottage Grove. In fact, it will dominate the culture of Cottage Grove. We would go from being a town with a race track to being a racing town."

In their joint application, owners of the speedway and fairgrounds properties seek a zone change from the county's "agriculture grazing timber" designation to the city's "parks and recreation" category.

Their plan calls for increasing average attendance at speedway events from 1,000 to 6,000 by 2015 and adding such year-round events BMX bicycle races, concerts and community garage sales. It also would allow up to 12 events per year to run later than the venue's current closing hours of 11 p.m. weekends and 10 p.m. weekdays.

Facilities improvements would include additional speedway "pit lights," building additional storage structures and advertising signboards, and expanding parking from 618 to 918 spaces. (The application calls for shuttles from other parking areas during large-scale events.)

The speedway was built north of the city in 1956, long before Lane County adopted its first zoning laws. The county designated the 17-acre property for agriculture or timber use in the 1970s, but permitted racing as a nonconforming use so long as the speedway continued operating each year and made no significant structural changes.

Area residents who said that they are upset with raceway noise, dust, traffic and lights complained for years that operators were violating the county's terms. In 2002, a hearings officer ruled that the speedway had indeed illegally added lighting, public address systems, seating and restroom areas. The Leaches appealed that decision - and incurred more than $10,000 in fines by defying an order to stop using the improvements.

Meanwhile, Cottage Grove annexed the property in 2003, along with the adjacent, nine-acre Western Oregon Exposition, a nonprofit venue for agricultural fairs and other activities since 1960. City officials also adopted a parks and recreation plan that specifically lists the speedway and fairgrounds as "recreation elements integral to the city's sense of place."

Speedway opponents appealed that provision, but the state Land Use Board of Appeals ruled last summer that the city could include private racing facilities in its plan. It also ruled, however, that the racetrack was subject to existing county restrictions until any new zoning is approved. Which means, critics say, that the Leaches have operated illegally since making the improvements that led to the 2002 order.

"When the Cottage Grove Hospital built a new facility, it had to meet stringently-applied local regulations before opening," Kilmer said. "So, too, the new Cottage Grove High School and Wal-Mart. Parking, sewer, water, safety, etc., all had to be met before the doors could open. They were not granted a 10-year period where they did not have to comply with the same law that every other business and public facility must comply with. ... Why is public safety and welfare being ignored for this one business?"

He also disputed Kloos's contention that the proposed plan is simply a continuation of a historic local operation.

"Yes, a track has been part of the culture of this community for 50 years but, that culture started out as a group of local folks wanting to have some place to race 'stock cars' once in awhile in the summer time," he said. "This is not your grandmother's racetrack. ... The entire culture of the town will be dominated by a year-round multi-use racing facility."

Kloos noted that the scope of the project is in the city's hands.

"If the city looks at it and says it's too big, they can tell us to make it smaller," he said. "But whatever the city decides, someone's going to be upset."


When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Council Chamber, 400 Main St.

Information: 942-3340
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Title Annotation:Government; Residents are to sound off on controversial changes proposed by the owners
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Apr 6, 2005
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