Public responds civilly to request to vacate Washington

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
About 55 people turned out Thursday night to offer and listen to opinions about an informal request from the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church to vacate the 100 block of South Washington Street.

The request had come to the city as an effort by church leaders to explore the possibility of building a facility at the former location. The previous facility was destroyed by fire March 7. The church owns property on both the east and west sides of that street.

At the start of the hearing, City Administrator Steven Garrett said the decision whether to vacate a street is made by the city council. State law does not require a public hearing prior to council discussion, but Garrett said he felt it would be helpful.

“Because of the nature of this issue, which has generated so much discussion, I thought it best that we have a public hearing so that we can actually here what folks are saying,” Garrett said.

“Let me stress this is not a debate, it is not an opportunity to design or redesign any building,” he added. “We’re talking about the issue at hand and the issue at hand is: do we, or do we not, close the street.”

About a dozen people actually voiced opinions during the session, and the majority spoke against closing the street. But the tone of the meeting was conversational.

One of the primary issues raised was the effect closing the street would have on ambulance runs. The ambulance center is located in the 100 block of North Washington.

JoAnn Knak, captain of the Hillsboro ambulance crew, said if a person suffered a heart attack just south of the closed block, an ambulance crew would have to drive three blocks instead of one to reach the victim.

“When we’re talking about a heart attack, we’re talking about timing,” she said. “If we have to go three block versus one block, it could change the outcome for that person.”

Craig Roble, a member of the local ambulance team, affirmed the value of even one human life, but also said concern over ambulance response time should be seen in a broader context.

He estimated that half of the time, the ambulance heads north on North Washington when it leaves the station. Half of the time when it does turn south, it turns east or west on Grand Avenue anyway.

“As important as one life is, I don’t think it would be as great an impact to close that street as some people may think for emergency services,” he said.

Bruce Kunkel, 210 Willow Glen, asked about the status of plans to move the city safety center to the former AMPI property at the corner of Ash and First streets.

“That’s not on any five-year plan,” Garrett replied. “I don’t know that we should use too many hypotheticals in this decision. There has been talk about it, but it’s not on any immediate drawing table.”

Another concern was the effect on traffic flow if the 100 block of South Washington was closed.

Cynthia Fleming, 1109 Bradford Court, asked if the city had done any traffic studies on Washington Street. Garrett said the city had not done so, but could if it would be helpful to do so.

Roger Hofer, 304 Briarwood Lane, said he felt vacating that block of Washington would “destroy” the flow of traffic off the downtown area. He said when northbound drivers reach the intersection of Main and Grand, they generally turn west to Ash Street or east to Washington Street to head back south.

“You’re cutting the total flow of traffic unless you want everyone to make a u-turn in front of the (Hillsboro State) bank up there (on North Main). It’s a natural, open road for the flow of traffic. You’re totally destroying that.”

Another concern expressed was having fewer streets that provide direct access to D Street from the north. Years ago, Tabor College was given permission to close Jefferson and Madison streets.

“We’re not going to have any way to get to the old highway (D Street) pretty soon if we keep closing streets,” said Mike Knak, 702 W. Grand.

Rod Bolstad, 403 S. Birch, asked if Washington Street had been declared by the state as part of the city’s official evacuation route in times of disaster. Garrett said he was unaware of such a designation but would find out.

Mike Knak also asked if the church was being given more consideration on the matter than a private investor would have been.

Garrett said, “If a private developer made the request, we’d be having the same discussion. This is according to state law…. We treat everyone equally.”

Other speakers raised questions about access to city utilities as well as drainage issues.

Garrett said if the street was vacated, the city would still retain utility easements. He also said the drainage issue would have to be addressed, but he declined to speculate on how that would be done since it had not been studied by an engineer.

Near the end of the meeting, Mike Knak and Wayne Friesen, 714 S. Washington, expressed their desire for the church to rebuild at its former location, but that the street remain open.

Knak said he would favor a variance if the church needed one to meet parking requirements.

“I know that’s not in the code, but we deal with traffic on that street during church hours, which is not a great problem,” he said.

After Garrett called the hearing to an end after 20 minutes, Bruce Porter, pastor of the Hillsboro Mennonite Brethren Church, thanked the people for expressing their ideas.

“I hope no one feels this is a power play of some kind,” Porter said. “It’s just our way of trying to explore options. We genuinely did not know what the impact would be, and that’s why we brought it to the city.

“We have a concern for our city, too,” he added. “Our desire is not to destroy the fabric of downtown. It’s to explore an option. If it is feasible and agreeable (to vacate the street), it would be wonderful for us. If it’s not, we don’t want to cause problems for the community. We very much value your opinions.”

The city council will address the issue at its July 6 meeting, which is scheduled for 4 p.m. in the meeting room at city hall.

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