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Phoenix council takes no action on riparian setbacks

Phoenix City Hall

Phoenix City Council took no action to create riparian setbacks on three unnamed streams as requested by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife after a lengthy session on the topic at its Feb. 7 meeting.

In a January letter to the city, Ryan Battleson, a fish biologist with the department’s Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program, said two of the streams have juvenile steelhead trout, are spring fed and connect to Bear Creek. They should have Class 1 designations with buffers of 50 feet on both sides of the stream banks.

ODFW also said a third stream, near the entrance of Blue Heron Park, should have Class 2 designation with 25-foot buffers. Barriers prevent the wetlands area from bearing fish. The wetlands area, owned by the Phoenix Urban Renewal Agency, had been proposed as part of a sale for an upscale RV park development, but has since been dropped from consideration and will likely remain with the city.

A group called Save The Phoenix Wetlands gave a presentation during the session and called for creation of the designations. Group members had previously objected to the sale of the Blue Heron wetlands parcel and voiced concerns that the spring originating there will be right on the boundary line of part of the property that may be sold for the RV park.

Phoenix Community and Economic Development Director Joe Slaughter said current city practices appear to work to preserve the health of wetlands and streams. The city is charged with ensuring the integrity of streams and wetlands by Oregon state law.

The city had done wetlands development work on the first unnamed stream site, just to the east of the Community Center, as part of a wetland mitigation project with the Oregon Department of State Lands. Recently the city worked with a biologist and wildlife experts to provide suitable habitat for a beaver that resides in the area, Slaughter said.

The Blue Heron Park wetlands and adjacent city park riparian areas have benefited from collaborations with the Rogue River Watershed Council, said Slaughter.

“If we are looking at how things are structured in the laws right now, the local ordinances, streams that are clarified as necessary for protection are classified by the state, we aren’t making that decision at the city level. ... In some ways none of that is in our purview,” said Councilor Ketzal McCready after the presentation. “Those protections are working. I don’t think there is an issue on the way that things are being protected.”

Councilors Angie Vermillion and Krista Peterson said they supported McCready’s viewpoint.

More difficult and costly maintenance and improvements would result for city- and PHURA-owned wetlands areas if the changes were made, Slaughter wrote in a staff report. The changes would also result in reduced development potential for private property owners.

The second potential Class 1 stream originates in a spring near the city’s Public Works yard and flows into Bear Creek just downstream from Anderson Creek. The stream crosses private property and is both inside and outside city limits. ODFW has found steelhead and salmon in the stream since 2014.

ODFW has been slow to update maps that show the presence of salmonid species but had alerted the city to their presence as early as 2015, said Battleson. The agency will likely pursue stream status for the area behind the Civic Center with the Department of State Lands, as it is established salmonid habitat, he said.

Creation of buffers would mean that only bridges, dams and water treatment or pumping facilities could be installed in those areas. Preservation of overstory and understory vegetation is also required.

Six speakers urged creation of the buffers during public input following the STWW’s presentation. But another was opposed and others called for transparency in the sale process.

Coleman Creek, Bear Creek and Anderson Creek are currently recognized as Class 1 streams in the city. Payne Creek carries a Class 2 designation. Payne is similar to the Blue Heron wetland stream in that most of it is cut off from Bear Creek, with Intestate 5 being the barrier in its case.

James Beard has proposed buying the PHURA site to go with two other adjacent private properties he purchased for the RV park. PHURA board Chair Al Muelhoefer said the sale is tentatively scheduled to close Feb. 28, but an extension of that date is likely. Before closing Beard must submit a site plan application to the city showing development.

Beard initially wanted to purchase the wetland areas for the park and proposed to mitigate for its elimination by purchasing wetlands elsewhere in a mitigation bank to replace the lost riparian area.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.