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Jacksonville Forest Park challenges turned back

for the Mail Tribune

JACKSONVILLE — Legal challenges to the city's decision to create an 880-acre park on part of the old municipal watershed have been rejected by a Jackson County hearings officer.

Donald Rubenstein rejected arguments that the county planning department erred in allowing a park on land zoned for woodland and forest use. Rubenstein's May 27 ruling determined concerns that were raised about fire safety and inadequate roads into the site were not valid. He dismissed a second appeal because it did not deal with relevant issues.

The City Council voted in 2004 to keep the 1,800-acre former municipal watershed west of town off Highway 238 rather than sell it. A year later the council set aside part of the land as Jacksonville Forest Park.

Since then, volunteers and city workers have built trails, erected interpretive signs, reduced woody debris on the ground that might burn in a wildfire and taken steps to reduce erosion.

"We are pretty pleased about it. It was a long, hard battle," said Dick Ames, who has led volunteer efforts at the site for the past four years. "We were continuing to do work, but now we will have a sign that will say 'Jacksonville Forest Park.' "

Improvements made so far were allowed under the land's classification, but without official parks status, signs could not be erected to direct visitors to the park.

Jackson County planning officials approved park status in March, but the ruling was appealed by Matt Bostwick, who owns property near the site, and by Clara Wendt, a former Jacksonville mayor.

Bostwick argued that the use change should not force a substantial change in costs or accepted uses of the land and that a change in use should not increase fire hazards to comply with county standards.

Rubinstein rejected those arguments, writing that the changes must be significant and impact specific activities.

Bostwick contended that trespass that already occurs on his property would increase with park designation and traffic would also increase. Rubinstein noted there is already traffic in the area from forest users and that Bostwick did not establish increased impacts to his land.

Bostwick's attorney, Megan LaNier, said her client is "exploring all of his options.

"We were really not in opposition to the park," LaNier said. "All Mr. Bostwick was really concerned with was some traffic issues. He wanted to make sure it was safe."

Wendt raised concerns about trail construction, condition of the reservoir dam, appearance of improvements, potential uses on adjacent lands and city liability on park land.

Of Wendt's appeal, Rubenstein wrote "The bulk of Appellant Wendt's appeal grounds do not address criteria and are not analyzed in the Decision."

Rubenstein does not comment publicly on his rulings. The appellants have until June 17 to decide whether to appeal to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.

Wendt said she has not decided whether to appeal.

"It's kind of one of those things, you win a few and you loose a few," she said. "I just feel it's an extremely dangerous place and we are going to have all this cutsey picnicking and whatnot."

Park supporters were encouraged by the ruling.

"We look forward to proceeding with the development plan that was outlined in the use permit," said Tony Hess, a park volunteer. Planned improvements include picnic tables, shelters, benches, signs, trash receptacles, interpretive panels, portable toilets, a parking area and a gated game area.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboom8929@charter.net