Lebanon hasn’t been able to convince a 92-year-old man and his retired son to sell a corner of his property for a traffic signal, so Linn County will probably take it.
County Commissioner Will Tucker confirmed on Thursday, Aug. 11 that a lawyer working for the county was developing an eminent domain case that could usher improvements to the intersection of Airport and Stoltz Hill roads.
Eminent domain is a court process that allows governments to take private property for public purposes by establishing a fair value price for the land.
City staff and a county official assert they’ve not been able to contact the owner, Paul Gregory, or son Rod Gregory to reach an agreement.
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“The city tried. The county tried. And now I’ve tried, and we’re going to proceed with the claim,” Tucker said.
Rod Gregory was using a string trimmer Friday, Aug. 12 to cut back grass on the property at 2015 Stoltz Hill, outside a squat red-and-white ranch-style in which he said he was “born and raised.”
“I’m home 90% of the time,” Rod Gregory said.
He returned to Lebanon to live with his dad in 2017, he said. Their home was at the north end of Stoltz Hill, on the right just before its termination at a stop sign and T-shaped intersection.
Developers extended the two-lane arterial street across Airport Road and built a low-income, veteran-friendly apartment block called Applegate Landing that opened in 2021.
County road department staff and Tucker asked owner Paul Gregory to cede .004 acres — 165.28 square feet — for about $2,400 dollars from the northwest edge of his yard, or the southeast edge of the recently expanded Airport-Stoltz Hill intersection.
“It’s not happening,” Rod Gregory said.
The city in its guiding document for improving flow of pedestrian and vehicle traffic estimates 60% of Lebanon’s labor force commutes from outlying areas. Highways 20 and 34 and Airport Road repeatedly are eyed for potential traffic signal, bike path and connector road projects.
A right turn from Stoltz Hill at the Gregory house merges with a steady flow of eastbound traffic mostly coming from Highway 34, circumventing downtown Lebanon for the city’s suburban southern edges.
To the left, visibility is limited by a convenience store, Grandpa’s Groceries. Stoltz approaches Airport at an angle and cars make a relatively sharp left turn to the west.
A car crosses in front of the traffic from 34 and over a turn lane, then rolls past the area’s high school.
With most traffic passing through, Rod Gregory said he doesn’t believe a protected left turn from Stoltz Hill will improve traffic.
“You’re going to have traffic backed up to Highway 34,” he said.
Both the grocery store and Gregory property are on the edge of city limits, in Linn County and Lebanon’s urban growth boundary.
The traffic is coming
Applegate’s construction set the city up with a developer contribution for 25% of the intersection's overhaul —and a chance to meet one of its transportation goals to break up the flow of traffic along Airport between 12th and Seventh streets, bracketing to the west and east.
Development netted a traffic study that showed traffic delays were within the city's standards and that about four cars crash at the intersection each year, within Oregon Department of Transportation specifications.
But assuming city grown, the same study projects that traffic could exceed volumes or wait times that warrant a traffic signal anywhere from 2022 to 2028.
City Engineering Director Ron Whitlatch told Lebanon’s planning commission in 2020 that the city would not wait for traffic volumes to trigger improvements at the intersection.
He reiterated in an Aug. 12 interview that the time for a signal is now, while traffic volumes are still lower than delays of 50 seconds or more projected in the analyses.
“It’s only going to get busier from there,” Whitlatch said.
Lebanon notified Paul Gregory in March 2021 that it would need a sliver of his property to make room.
A draft plan of the intersection shows a widened left turn from Stoltz and Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant curb cuts and bumpy yellow plates.
Curb cuts also eat into the Grandpa’s Grocery property across the road, but the lot and business owner has petitioned Lebanon for zoning changes that will allow a new convenience store and gas station.
An engineer in an April 2021 memorandum identified the proposal as an opportunity for Lebanon to pursue the Airport-Stoltz Hill signal.
Rod Gregory, 68, acknowledged he hasn’t met with the city since 2021. The first offer came in at $600. The county upped that to $1800 and tasked a commissioner to seal the deal.
The last and standing offer was for $2,402, or .004 of the property’s estimated $545,821-per-acre market value plus 10% annual inflation.
It’s not enough, Rod Gregory said. The household is on a fixed income, he said, and he said he fears intersection improvements may raise the value of the property and with it the property tax burden beyond what they would receive.
“We’re going to have to pay for that improvement somehow,” Rod Gregory said.
He said his requests to first Lebanon then Linn County to see plans for the traffic signal and Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant sidewalks haven’t been met.
He said both governments also failed to show justification for potentially taking a slice of the property.
A draft plan shared with Rod Gregory shows a schematic for lights and sidewalk cuts and, on the southeast corner of the intersection, the missing corner of property. But that plan is a draft, 75% of the fully-designed overhaul.
And the traffic studies conclude a signal at the intersection is not immediately warranted, even if the city has prioritized traffic improvements on Airport in its transportation plan.
Rod Gregory said he’d be willing to sit down with officials and staff over finalized plans.
“If it goes to court, they’re going to have their big fancy attorney, and we’ll be screwed,” Rod Gregory said.
Alex Powers (he/him) covers business, environment and healthcare for Mid-Valley Media. Call 541-812-6116 or email Alex.Powers@lee.net.