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Rhododendron controversy blooms on coast.

Byline: Elon Glucklich The Register-Guard

FLORENCE - It wasn't supposed to be controversial.

With $1.1 million in state and federal grants, the city of Florence would build a bike and walking path next to a winding arterial road in a residential neighborhood on the west side of the city, near the Siuslaw River. City leaders and many community members have championed the Rhododendron Drive multiuse path idea since the 1990s, eyeing it as a draw for coastal highway bicyclists and locals looking for a scenic stroll.

But as details of the project emerged this year after the grant was approved in 2012, excitement has turned into surprise and anger for many residents living along Rhododendron Drive, which wraps along the city's western boundary, west of Highway 101.

Building the 10-foot-wide path on the east side of the road would require stormwater ditches three to five feet wide to keep the path from flooding in heavy rains, the city discovered after meeting with project consultants.

The project would also require building retaining walls in some areas, even going onto the edge of homeowners' properties in some places to stablize uneven terrain.

The path, swales and retaining walls would require cutting numerous old rhododendrons and native shore pines on a three-quarter-mile sretch of the road between Ninth Street and Wildwinds Street. In a city whose residents revere rhododendrons, an uproar was inevitable.

Now the project is sparking outrage from some community members, who accuse the city of keeping residents in the dark about the details.

A group of about 50 people have formed "The Citizen's Committee to Save Our Native Rhododendrons." Group organizers say they've collected 2,500 signatures from Florence residents - many living in a 567-lot community along Rhodendron Drive for residents 55 years old and up, called Greentrees Village.

They'll have plenty to say at a public forum Monday evening, set up for residents to discuss the multi-use path with Florence city councilors.

"Every other road in this town has simple bike lanes," said Vicki Martin, one of the Save Our Native Rhododendrons organizers. "Why on Rhododendron Drive do you need to put a behemoth, urban-sized path?"

The city wants to start building the path next spring, and have it done by late summer. The federal Department of Transportation grant requires the path to be complete by December 2015. Otherwise the city could lose the $1.1 million in grant funds, and be on the hook to repay more than $110,000 in federal dollars they've spent on design and early engineering work, Florence Public Works Director Matt Miller said. He said the project is on hold while the city tries to quell the controversy.

City leaders said they hope the forum can assure residents their properties will be unharmed, and that many of the rhododendrons could grow back in the years to come.

"Our intent is to address their concerns and to see where there is the possibility for us finding some sort of a compromise," Mayor Nola Xavier said. Other city councilors didn't return messages from The Register-Guard seeking comment.

Xavier said opponents have filled the roughly 60-seat city council chambers for the last several meetings, and some have picketed city hall. They've all been respectful, she said. Monday's meeting will be at the Florence Events Center instead of city hall, due to an expected large turnout.

"They have very passionate feelings, and I definitely get that," Xavier said. "But at same time, we don't want to give up on what could be a really wonderful amenity."

Some residents feel city staff have been acting for months as though the path project has nearly unanimous support, and accused city councilors of downplaying their concerns.

As the grant was awarded and the project entered planning stages, "The community's number-one statement to the city was to save as many of the rhododendron and native shore pines as possible," said Bill Johnson, a 10-year resident of the Greentrees Village who sits on its board of directors. "What they are designing now takes everything out on the east side of Rhododendron Drive." He and Vicki Martin said the vegetation and animal life it attracts near their homes improve their quality of life.

Martin said Greentrees residents had asked the city for months if they could take a look at the path plan, but didn't see a copy until early May.

When the public got its first look, "Everybody agreed it's not what we asked for," Martin said. Despite the mayor's hope for a compromise, city officials have told residents there aren't many options because of the grant's strict guidelines, according to Martin.

Meanwhile, the condition of Rhododendron Drive itself has deteriorated significantly since talks of a path began.

"When people asked for a path there many years ago, that went unanswered, and the road went uncared for. Now the road is basically nohing but cracks and potholes, and we still don't have a small path," Martin said. "Now (the city) is telling us they need to do the project according to the grant requirements. We've made an analogy that we asked for a Smart car, and they're forcing a Humvee on us."

Follow Elon on Twitter @EGlucklich. Email

Rhododendron Drive MultiUse Path Public Hearing

When: 7 p.m. Monday.

Where: Florence Events Center, 715 Quince St.

Details: Florence City Council will review scope and design of proposed multiuse path on Rhododendron Drive. Councilors will also take comments from the public.
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