DANA MERRYDAY/PHOTO Cottage Grove’s state-of-the-art drinking water treatment plant.

Around town … 

Cottage Grovers are a tough crowd. They expect a lot from their elected officials and their tax dollars, and occasionally view city officials’ actions with suspicion. In a small town it is easy for rumors to spread and with social media replacing the backyard fence to gossip over, it is easy to have misinformation spread about, morphing as it goes.  

When there is already a level of mistrust among parts of the populace, City Council decisions get the third degree and often are judged by past events. Recently, three actions in Cottage Grove city politics have generated more discussion than usual. Jake Boone resigned from his Ward One council seat to apply for the newly created Assistant to the City Manager job. He accepted the new job last week. Then there was the City Council action to select Boone’s replacement from a pool of six applicants, all Ward One residents. Chalice Savage, who lost in her bid for an at-large seat in the November 2020 election, was selected by a 5-to-1 vote and sworn in to replace Boone. Lastly, on Wednesday, March 17, members of the Cottage Grove Planning Commission and more than 30 members of the public spent their St. Paddy’s Day evening wading through the proposal for development of part of the old Harrison School site. A developer is planning on building 80 apartment units on the southern 3.41 acres of the property.

There are a lot of opinions out there about those events and a fair amount of chatter in the streets and on social media. Will Rogers, the cowboy humorist, said famously, “Well, all I know is what I read in the papers,” meaning, of course, newspapers. Substitute social media for papers and you probably wouldn’t be far off that mark. But if you judge only by what you read on the feed you are not getting all the facts.

At the City Council work session this past Saturday at City Hall, the meeting opened with a frank discussion on the idea of the public’s perception of their city government and how to better communicate with the public regarding the Council’s decisions, policies, and fiscal limitations. The use of a social media platform was discussed at length.

In the remainder of this epistle I want to focus on five areas of consideration that will need to be dealt with by current and future Cottage Grove residents regardless who is in charge.

These are essential services which are going to be expensive and will determine what the future of growth will look like.  

The big five are housing, roads, infrastructure, water, and wastewater disposal. There is no way in the space available here to adequately cover all that ground, but here is hoping a coherent snapshot will emerge to help understand what we all are facing.

One point that must be made very clear is that in discussing these areas, Cottage Grove is not in a vacuum. All the aforementioned topics are heavily regulated by Lane County, State of Oregon, and Federal Agencies. So a decision made for any of those five areas must pass – or face fines, or worse.

Start with housing. There isn’t enough for everyone who wants to live here. Being this close to Eugene has made Cottage Grove an attractive bedroom community to folks who have jobs in the city but prefer the peace and quiet of living in a small town. Being right on the I-5 corridor makes it attractive to commute. Others are coming here as climate refugees. I recently had a new neighbor move in who had fled two major fires, losing it all in the last one.

Cottage Grove is also being discovered by others wanting to move to a quaint community surrounded with forests, hills, and recreation possibilities very close by. And then there are the native Grovers, members of the 3rd-, 4th-, or 5th-generation looking for a place to move into as they leave the nest and want to stay in the old hometown.  

Oregon Land Use regulations and construction costs are limiting factors for housing. Another is the lack of jobs that pay enough for the potential first-time homeowner to step up.

The competition for the few houses that do become available has driven the price beyond the reach of many who grew up here and that means those houses are being snapped up by outsiders. Infill, tiny homes, ADUs, and multi-story residences may be the best solution for easing some of the housing crunch. Building more apartments will provide living spaces but there is no indication that they will be particularly affordable, nor do they provide the possibility of ownership.

Road conditions of the 51 miles of city streets were not only a top concern during the City Council candidate interviews, but are a frequent grousing point for the average Grover. During the work session Public Works Director Faye Stewart said that a recent survey of the condition of said streets yielded a 58 PCI (pavement condition index). By comparison, Stewart said that the average county road condition index is 72 and you can make the comparison yourself for the smoothness of the ride between the two. 

To bring up the state of repair to the level of Lane County roads would take the expenditure of about $1.2 million annually over the next 10 years. The annual city budget line item for street repair and maintenance is $400,000 with additional costs for street lights, traffic signals, and such things as replacing signs.  

One trick the public works crews use to try to stretch out the dollars is to seal cracks and fix potholes before water can get down inside and damage the road base. This is a stopgap measure. While people love to complain about the state of Cottage Grove’s roads, they don’t want to pay for better ones.

About five years ago there was a 3-cent per gallon gas tax proposed with the goal of raising some funds for road repair. This would be a true user tax, the more you drive the more you would potentially wear out roads and the more you would pay. And we are talking about maybe 60 cents per fill-up too. Additionally, all those folks who pulled off the freeway for a tank of gas would be unwittingly helping us out before heading on their way. The Cottage Grove voters soundly rejected the measure, so I don’t think you get to complain too much about the bumps folks.

Before getting too excited about any major road repairs there is trouble lurking just under the blacktop. Aging water mains, sewer pipes, and drains are ticking time bombs just waiting to fail. Some are over 100 years old. Clay, concrete and cast-iron pipes are failing. To resurface a road without fixing up what’s underneath it means the new street will have to be dug up for repairs, then repatched, and would soon be back to where we started.

Replacing the failing lines first is essential. And when bringing up road conditions if curbs and sidewalks are involved, then ADA requirements kick in and that is another unfunded mandate that must be satisfied. This is currently being done with the “Safe Routes to School” improvement project. Residents affected by this project can attest to all the work that went into the underground before they got their streets back. 

One of the systems that lie under our streets is our drinking water pipes. Probably the most misunderstood thing in our fair city is your utility bill – for that is what it is, utility, not a water bill.

When I came here house hunting 10 years ago, almost everybody I talked to warned me of the expensive price of water. A close reading of the figures shows many different charges. Yes there is water in there, but also wastewater treatment, storm water, and the debt retirement from the mandated construction of water treatment that had to be built to avoid huge fines from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), the EPA and the Oregon Water Resources. 

The water you use and make dirty must be cleaned and allowed to re-enter the watershed without being dumped directly into the river system it originally came from.  

Water for drinking is taken from the Row River, filtered, chlorine added and constantly tested and monitored for 91 different contaminants. Current capacity is around 6 million gallons. The amount of water that can be drawn is determined by historic water rights and governmental regulations. The exemplary drinking water system, state-of-the-art, has been observed by engineers from many different municipalities from across the country. 

Once the water goes down your drains or toilets the other part of your bill comes into play, the treatment of your dirty water. This is perhaps more closely regulated than drinking water. Storm water also must be handled. 

The recent holding pond was constructed to hold treated effluent water until it can be used for irrigation. Plans are to pipe it to the 174 I-5 interchange, and then plans to expand to Bohemia Park.

It is my personal wish that a “purple” water line could be added to bring the effluent to households to use to water lawns and gardens. It never has made sense to me to put high quality drinking water on grass that must be then mowed. Currently regulations don’t allow it to be used for home use. The City-owned Middlefield Golf Course was purchased as a way to rid us of this effluent. This was actually cheaper than building a cooling tower and brings in some revenue as well.  

The bio-solids left over from water treatment also offer another thing to deal with. In the old days the solid waste was dried and distributed to local farms as a rich soil builder. A change in the system to aerobic digestion makes this a very fragrant end product now, so that option is out. Now it costs to have it removed and disposed of, but maybe in the future it can be made less odoriferous and again be used locally. The city is looking to have the dry solids pellatized and made avaliable for lawn fertilizer to residents.

While we are still paying for the water treatment plants there is some bad news on the horizon. In order to keep up capacity, allow for growth, and replace aging components, projects costing in the neighborhood of $15.5 million will be necessary. That is according to a study done at the behest of the City by the FCS Group. Revenue Bonds will need to be floated to pay for the capital projects along with existing rates and funds, and expect predicted rate increases of 12% for the next three years for the wastewater fees only. 

While this sounds drastic, calculations yield about a six-dollar increase per month, which will go for three years, each year stepping up a notch.

Director Stewert delivered some surprise news at the work session: It is the old clarifier that is failing at the wastewater plant. While its replacement was on the to-do list, this failure has complicated the process, as the clarifier is an essential part of the system. The rake that stirs the bottom has failed, and it is esssential to have both clarifiers in operation to keep up with the demand.

Well, that is a whirlwind synopsis of what’s going on in town as best as this reporter can tell. 

There is a bigger question looming over all of our heads. What is the Cottage Grove we want to turn into? The nostalgic part of me misses Dr. Pierce’s Barn, Past 45 Store, and the funky 99 & Main intersection. The dreamer in me would like green jobs, a living wage, and concise smart growth producing affordable housing. 

But there is a big world out there that has its sights on us. If you think climate change isn’t real, I would call to mind our lack of winter this year. As things dry out and the climate becomes more Mediterranian we will face more drought, fires, and people heading our way. One good fire in our water source’s watershed would be disastrous for our supply. And the anchor that determines our possibility to grow is ultimately water, both clean and used. Our drinking-water system and the ability to deal with the end product (what goes in must come out) sets how many Grovers can live here. With the topography of the area, projected growth limits will be about 25,000. There is also the quality of life. If we get too big it will kill what we do have now. 

There was a real effort to make plans for what the Cottage Grove of the future will look like. In 2008, The Vision Keepers did extensive studies to plot our future, seeking wide-ranging citizen input. They produced the 2037 Vision and Action Plan, which charts a course to get us to the Sesquicentennial of the incorporation of Cottage Grove. It is available on the City of Cottage Grove’s website and is well worth a read. If you want to have a hand in where we end up, get involved in your City, join boards, commissions, vote, run for office, attend council and board meetings. Don’t believe everything you hear and only half of what you see. Otherwise you forfeit not only your ability to control your future and that of your town, but especially your right to complain!

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