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Planning Commission OKs new South Medford campus

The Medford Planning Commission Thursday approved a conditional use permit allowing for the construction of a new South Medford High School in a residential zone at the intersection of Columbus and Cunningham avenues.

The permit is necessary because the city has no zone distinction for schools, and commissioners are responsible for ensuring that the campus either has no adverse impact on residential life in the area or benefits the greater community to a degree that its construction is warranted.

"This is truly a remarkable next step toward the construction of the new South High," said Medford schools Superintendent Phil Long.

"Reaching this milestone will help us open the school by September 2010 and stay on budget."

The $82 million project involves building a 255,700-square-foot school on a 42-acre campus to replace the existing 77-year-old South Medford building on Oakdale Avenue.

At a hearing preceeding the vote, six out of eight speakers showed strong support for moving the project forward.

"This city and extended community really need this high school to have any kind of pretense of being a desirable community to live in," said Karen Salant, mother of a South Medford freshman.

"As much as I love the home of the Panthers, it's a disgraceful place to be educating kids."

Former board members Peggy Penland and Cynthia Wright, the mother of a South Medford junior, each gave anecdotes about why the existing campus is no longer suitable for students.

Wright's son and his classmates had to move to the auditorium stage for English class earlier this year after their classroom was flooded.

"They had a play that week so the night they had practices or performances they had to clear out all the desks and then set them up again that night after the play," Wright said.

It took about a week until the English classroom was dried out again.

Penland noted that the existing campus' cafeteria has a capacity for only 340 people while enrollment at the school stands at about 1,850.

Some students leave campus for lunch. Others eat outside or stand under the eaves on rainy days.

The new South Medford cafeteria will have a capacity of about 535.

Two speakers raised concerns about traffic surrounding the new school.

Resident David Fletcher said based on the school's traffic plans, he expected unwelcome incursions into Spruce Way, a narrow dead-end street where his home is, by motorists trying to make their way to the campus.

Resident Tom Hiti said he was concerned about an influx of traffic at the intersection of Dixie Lane and Stewart Avenue.

"It wasn't part of the (district's) traffic study," Hiti said. "It's already difficult to see there when the sun is setting."

Jim Maize, a planning consultant for the district, acknowledged that there is a visibility problem at the intersection. He suggested removing some vegetation along the public right-of-way to help improve it.

Planning commissioner Norm Nelson raised concerns about students and visitors menacing neighbors by parking on residential streets.

Maize said the district included 549 parking spaces on the new campus, which is about 20 percent more than what is required by city code. The existing campus in the city's historic district has only about 340 spaces, and both the city and the school receive complaints from area residents about students parking in front of their houses.

The Medford School District must clear just one more hurdle — approval by the city's Site Plan and Architectural Commission — before receiving a building permit.

The SPAC hearing on the school is set for noon May 16.

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.