West Richland neighborhood split over proposal to pave roads

By Sara Schilling, Tri-City HeraldJanuary 12, 2013 

A proposal to replace almost two miles of privately maintained dirt roads with paved roads built and maintained by Benton County has divided a neighborhood near West Richland.

Some residents say the new roads -- in the Willamette Heights area, not far from the Benton Fire District 4 station on Bombing Range Road -- are needed for safety and would benefit the entire neighborhood.

But others say the benefit would be disproportionate. They argue that residents who don't use the roads still would have to pay to build them. Some also say the roads would bring more traffic and speeding cars, disrupting the rural character that drew them there.

The final decision rests with county commissioners, who will decide whether to approve the new County Road Improvement District, or CRID. Commissioners heard from about two dozen property owners during a meeting last month, and they're expected to discuss the CRID again Tuesday.

A decision could come then or at a future session.

Commissioner Shon Small, chairman of the three-member board of commissioners, acknowledged there are strong feelings on both sides. He said he'll consider public input in his decision.

The CRID proposal came from some Willamette Heights property owners, who gathered enough support from their neighbors to bring it to commissioners. It's similar to another recent CRID proposal for the area that was disqualified after some petitioners withdrew their names.

About 100 parcels fall within the proposed CRID.

Roughly 1.87 miles of road would be constructed through the neighborhood -- with most of the newly paved roadway replacing existing dirt roads.

A county estimate puts the total cost at a little more than $2 million, including right-of-way purchases, surveying and construction. The estimated per-parcel assessment is $21,455 -- an amount property owners could pay all at once or in installments broken up over time.

Public Works Manager Steve Becken said the project costs and assessments are based on a "worst-case" scenario and could turn out to be lower.

For Ed and Laura Keeney, new roads are critical.

"It's a safety issue. It's a vehicle maintenance issue. We have a number of potholes out here that in some cases seem to be a foot deep," Ed Keeney said.

Another resident, Darren Curtis, agrees.

"In the winter it's potholes. In the summer, it's dust. They're both safety concerns," Curtis said. "There are times when, if you were to stop in the middle of the road and open your car door, you'd have water in your car" because of lack of drainage.

Proponents also say the paved county roads would make it safer for kids waiting for the bus, cut down on noise, allow for enforcement of traffic laws in the neighborhood, improve access for emergency vehicles and make the homes more appealing when they're put up for sale, among other benefits.

Curtis said there's strong support in the neighborhood and from local officials.

But some residents say they take different routes to and from their homes and wouldn't use the roads. Cecil Kindle, who wants his property removed from the CRID, said "all the proposed pavement is to the south of me" and all his travels -- including grocery store and bank trips -- are to the north.

"Even if I should sell my property, which I'm not going to do, it would be the same for (the future owners)," Kindle said.

Some also say the extra cost would take a toll. Longtime resident John Nelson said he and his wife likely would have to move if the CRID goes forward, even though they've paid off their mortgage.

Ken McCullough said speeding already is a problem, and it would be worse with paved roads. He and his wife, Kirsten, also said they'd like to keep the area's rural nature.

A residents association has existed in the neighborhood for years, collecting monthly fees for road maintenance. Some residents pay and some don't.

Commissioners will meet at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Benton County Courthouse in Prosser.

As a decision nears, some residents said the division over the roads has led to hard feelings and even bad behavior -- from gerrymandering to threats. Others say the dispute doesn't seem to have seeped into day-to-day life in Willamette Heights.

Laura Keeney hopes the neighborhood will be able to move on once a decision is made, she said.

"I would hope that ... we as neighbors can still stay friendly with one another," she said.

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