20-mile path crosses numerous jurisdictions; special district could be created to oversee maintenance
By Morgan Rothborne, Rogue Valley Tribune
Jackson County voters may be asked to approve new taxes to help improve how the Bear Creek Greenway is maintained.
Local officials are looking at several options for how to better manage the 20-mile-long, multi-use trail. But they would need buy-in from voters and all entities now involved — including Jackson County and the cities of Central Point, Medford, Phoenix, Talent and Ashland.
“We’re really looking at — after the Almeda Fire — where do we go from here with the Bear Creek Greenway?” said Steve Lambert, director of the Jackson County Roads and Parks Department. “We’re moving toward developing the desired level of service, but how do we govern it? How do we pay for it?”
The Greenway, which stretches from Ashland to Central Point, was the subject of a public opinion survey last year through the Envision Bear Creek project. After the Almeda Fire chewed through long stretches of blackberries, trees, parks and buildings along the trail, it seemed a good time to reconsider how to better manage a public asset in distress. Respondents were overwhelmingly concerned with safety, Lambert said.
The current system of governance is unwieldy, doesn’t offer stable funding and leads to inconsistent maintenance, he said.
Jackson County keeps up bridges, the trail’s asphalt and ground 10 feet to the right and left of the path.
Everything else is up to the five cities through which the trail passes. Jackson County and the Oregon Department of Transportation also have sections. Some parts are better maintained than others depending on the resources and issues particular to each city.
Responding to the volume of safety concerns — from poorly patched asphalt to needles, trash, homeless camps and fire — requires a more stable funding source, according to Lambert. Greenway advocates also envision adding additional trails and continuing with plans to extend the path to Grants Pass.
Each entity involved in the Greenway has received a list of governance models to review. One option is to maintain the status quo. Another is a nonprofit entity such as a foundation. A further option is a special parks and recreation district, while another idea is a county service district. Some have suggested a county service district with an additional inter-governmental agreement. Some form of jurisdictional partnership is also being discussed.
The county district with an additional agreement was referred to by Lambert as a “hybrid” option and has been the most popular so far. But only five entities have responded.
Once a steering committee and all of the entities involved agree on an option, the finer details would have to be worked out. Any special district would have to be approved by Jackson County voters.
A special Greenway district would likely be similar to other county districts such as the Jackson County Library District — except the intergovernmental agreement would help cities involved maintain some oversight of the trail. The governing entity would be rare or completely unique. Lambert said he could not think of another entity exactly like it, but to create it, no new laws would be needed.
“We’re using tools that are in the statute currently to help us find a stable funding source but also keep as many entities at the table having a voice as we can. This is a valuable asset to many communities,” he said.
If the “hybrid” county service district option is the favorite choice, the amount of revenue from the taxes levied would have to be determined. There are too many unknown variables to make estimates at this time, Lambert said. But taxes would create a more stable funding source to help the Greenway face some of its recurring challenges.
Last year’s public survey included a map on the Envision Bear Creek site where comments and concerns could be tied to specific locations on the Greenway. Residents complained of homeless camps, invasive weeds and uneven maintenance.
“Mile points 17.25-17.5,” commented Jeff Cruzan, referring to the area near Glenwood Street between Phoenix and Medford. “I refer to this stretch as ‘prostate alley.’ More than 50 cross-path cracks have opened on this short stretch to 2 inches wide or more … over-coating with sealer will not save this section. It appears to need significant repair.”
Many comments focused on crime or trash along the section near Hawthorne Park in Medford.
“I wish I could ride from Central Point to Hawthorne Park, but I’ve been harassed by people that like to scare those using the trail for exercising,” said one commenter.
On the trail portion near Central Point, concerns turned to invasive weeds and infrastructure.
“Non-native blackberry bushes are growing back, which presents a fire danger in the summer since they are fire-prone and burn hot,” said one commenter.
Jackson County has spent $350,000 annually on the Greenway over the past few years, Lambert said. But that amount is limited to general maintenance and operations. It does not include city costs and law enforcement services. Recovery work from the Almeda Fire has largely been conducted by entities outside the county, he said.
Community Justice crews clean up trash and clear weeds next to the path at an annual cost of $57,000. Lambert did not have numbers on the cost for cleaning up some of the larger debris and homeless camps along the Greenway. Contractors are now employed for this work to protect city and county employees, he said.
“The cost of some of this cleanup has skyrocketed in recent years. It can get extremely costly. There were days we were removing 100 cubic yards of garbage,” he said.
For the moment, the hope is to achieve consensus on a new plan to address these long-term problems.
“It’s something we don’t want to rush,” he said.
Reach reporter Morgan Rothborne at email@example.com. This story first appeared in the Rogue Valley Times.