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Ashland council eyes Croman Mill activities

Operators of the Croman Mill property, a prime development parcel, are supposed to be conducting a reclamation project at the site
Ashland City Council is looking into reports of an unpermitted commercial soil operation at the Croman Mill property south of Mistletoe Road in Ashland. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]
The Croman Mill property east of Tolman Creek Road in Ashland has been eyed for years as a prime development site, with plans calling for a mix of residential and commercial development. [Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune]

A 60-acre site in southeast Ashland known as the Croman Mill District is being scrutinized by Ashland City Council in response to concerns that a soil operation has been conducted on the site instead of the reclamation project outlined in the city’s master plan for developing the property.

“As we understand it, there existed a roughly five- to seven-year period — Croman Corporation through an agreement with Johnny Cat Corporation — has operated an unpermitted, for-profit, excavation dump site (and) a soil sales operation that has generated significant impact to the city and neighboring properties,” Councilman Stephen Jensen said during an Ashland City Council meeting Aug. 2.

In 2010, the city of Ashland created a master plan for developing the Croman Mill District that called for light manufacturing, office buildings, housing, retail shops and restaurants, while preserving natural areas.

City staff, according to council materials, have been in talks throughout 2022 with Townmakers LLC, a potential buyer for the land.

Townmakers presented a plan for the area in January that called for single-family and multifamily housing, walking trails and opportunities for local business. Townmakers could not be reached this week for comment.

The land, situated east of Tolman Creek Road, can’t be developed until it’s cleared by the Department of Environmental Quality of any potential contamination, said Brandon Goldman, senior planner for the Ashland Community Development Department.

In the early 1940s, Croman Mill was one of several mills forming the economic engine for the city of Ashland, said George Kramer, local historic preservation consultant. Croman Mill was the last lumber mill in Ashland when it closed in 1997.

The city of Ashland once owned the land, Kramer said, and at some point during the mill’s operation the Croman Corporation purchased it, but he has been unable to determine when the sale occurred.

The Croman Mill property now is owned by Dwain & Bud LLC, a company created by the Croman Corporation in 2002 for the written purpose to “own development property,” according to the business entity data filed with the Oregon Secretary of State.

The Croman Corporation specializes in helicopter logging and aerial firefighting. Its current contracts include the Oregon Department of Forestry and U.S Army, according to its website, at https://croman.net/.

The corporation agreed to the city’s master plan and a reclamation project in 2010, according to council meeting material.

Cleanup of the property was originally expected to take two to three years, said Bill Molnar, director of the Ashland Community Development Department.

Reclamation under the master plan required clearing contaminants and excavation of 30 to 40 feet to get to native soil underneath the layers created by the mill, Molnar explained.

When the mill was operational, he said, it would lay down log decks, then layer over those with rocks, and this was repeated for 60 years.

“At some point they (Croman Corporation) started using the wood waste and bringing other materials on the property to create high-value soil amendments for sale,” Molnar said, “And we realize that really wasn’t consistent with the zoning ordinance.”

Material was trucked on site for making soil amendments, he explained, but unsorted material from construction sites around the valley also was trucked in to fill the excavated holes.

Croman Corporation entered into a voluntary cleanup plan with DEQ in July of 2022, according to the voluntary cleanup letter obtained by the Mail Tribune.

“Through this new DEQ assessment, of doing tests around the site, it’ll identify if any of that material had any contaminants when it came onto the property,” Goldman said.

“Help us understand why there was never a permit issued for this massive project?” Jensen asked Community Development staff at the Aug. 2 council meeting.

Molnar said the Community Development department didn’t believe the original project required a permit, and the department operated under the assumption that Croman Mill was a reclamation project.

“We would have liked to have caught it earlier. Unfortunately, we didn’t. There’s a lot of compliance activity on different fronts on the city,” Molnar said.

Mark DiRienzo, owner and developer of the Mistletoe Road Business Park down the street from Croman Mill, said he has been sending emails, making phone calls and requesting meetings with Ashland city councilors, the Community Development Department, the former city attorney and former mayor over the past 10 years to alert them of activity at the site.

Several of these emails, obtained by the Mail Tribune, include video and photos of activity at the site. DiRienzo described soil amendment operations, dust storms, silt clogging the storm drains and, on one occasion, an eight-acre wildfire.

“I just want to see the land developed,” DiRienzo said in a phone interview. “This is the best development opportunity for Ashland, and we’ve lost it for 10 years.”

In a 2020 letter to the Planning Department, DiRienzo wrote that because the soil operation at Croman Mill was conducted without a permit, there was no opportunity for public comment on the project. The project also was not subjected to the regulations or oversight that would normally be required of an industrial project, he said.

Another neighbor of the mill site, Irene Kai, said after the first few years of noise and dust, she started watching the trucks that went by her window. She estimated for much of the last 10 years there were roughly 50 trucks per day. The trucks going in were filled with construction debris, she said, while the trucks going out were filled with dark soil.

The activity is not as intense as it was, she said, it’s no longer 12 hours a day, but trucks are still daily going to and from Croman Mill.

“The dust was really horrifying, dark clouds of it with children playing in the yard right down the road,” Kai said, referencing the proximity of Bellview Elementary School to the Croman Mill site.

“It was only when we realized the focus was on a commercial enterprise (in 2020) — and they admittedly told the staff,” Molnar said, “and when we scanned through the ordinance, we realized it was contrary to the plan.”

Croman Corporation was then asked to apply for a conditional use permit to continue the operation, which was denied, Molnar said. A grading permit was issued in 2022, which limits activity on the site to reclamation only.

The grading permit established bimonthly visits to the site by Community Development staff to monitor the property, he said.

“The material as it’s sorted is repurposed; some of it goes to biomass. All of the organic material that’s been removed, it’s been taken to another site, but it’s not sold,” said Mike Montero, an urban development consultant representing the Croman Corporation, describing current activity on the site.

Montero said they have offered to host a site visit for City Council, which is being organized by the Community Development Department.

“It is a fact — and I have seen it with my own eyes today — the hauling of quality materials from the Croman Mill site continues unabated,” Jensen said at the Aug. 2 meeting.

Jensen said that he drove to the site Aug. 2 and asked a Johnny Cat driver whether shipments of soil were still being trucked out for sale, and the driver said yes.

Jensen offered a motion to have Community Development staff present detailed information about current activities at the site at the Aug. 16 City Council meeting. The motion passed unanimously.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Morgan Rothborne at mrothborne@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4487. Follow her on Twitter @MRothborne.

Correction: This story was revised to say that a letter by Mark DiRienzo to the Planning Department was written in 2020.