By JESSE BURKHARDT
The community spoke with one loud voice at last week's meeting of the White Salmon Valley School Board, and it was a voice in unanimous opposition to placing an assisted living center for senior citizens on the site of what is now the Jewett Sports Complex.
On April 20, about 35 citizens crowded into the Whitson Elementary School library to hear more about the proposal from Columbia Cascade Housing Corp. (CCHC) to build atop the four ball fields in White Salmon.
Without exception, members of the public who addressed the board made clear that the Jewett Sports Complex between NE Tohomish Street and NE Center Street should be left alone.
Bill Ruff, a Portland architect who heads LRS Development LLC, led a presentation about the proposed assisted living center during the board meeting. Ruff made clear that the concept was in an exploratory stage only, and no final siting determinations had been reached.
"We're still looking at alternatives," Ruff said.
"This is just a concept. Until we get a site, nothing is cast in concrete," added Ruby Mason, executive director of CCHC, which is based in The Dalles, Ore. "White Salmon has a growing population and there is a lack of long term care facilities. It's an unmet need locally."
Mason said the assisted living center would be similar in design to one CCHC built in Stevenson, and would have the dignity of seniors in mind.
"We encourage them to do as much as they can on their own, so they age with dignity," said Mason. "We'd love to have something like this in White Salmon. It's really a nice place."
Ruff said the proposed center would include a total of 52 units, including 32 studios four one-bedroom units, and eight "memory care" units. The plans call for a 38,800 square foot, one-story facility covering about two acres.
Proponents said the 24-hour center for seniors would create 30 new jobs, a mix of full-time and part-time.
"Residents would need services night and day," Ruff noted.
Although no one objected to the idea of building an assisted living center in the community, no one thought placing it on the site where the ball fields are located was a good idea.
Board members said they would not consider eliminating the ball fields, but rather would rebuild them elsewhere before the proposed assisted living center could be built.
However, that idea was met with skepticism.
School board member Jeff Cooper asked what would happen if the center for seniors were to be built over the fields.
"You're taking away ball fields that are in use nine months of the year," Cooper said. "You would have to replace the fields and have them playable before you start building. Who would pay for that?"
Fellow board member Paul Mosbrucker said issues such as that would have to be negotiated if the process moves forward.
"The ball fields are a critical part of the community," Mosbrucker said. "Our whole idea is to at least match what we have now, and hopefully improve quality of the fields. We're not in any way giving up anything or cutting into availability."
School district Superintendent Jerry Lewis said a preliminary cost estimate on relocating the ball fields onto property adjacent to Columbia High School has already been obtained.
"Our investigation on the cost to move those fields is $210,000-$280,000. That would be part of our negotiations," Lewis said.
Ruff noted that the $7.5 million project cost included money for relocation of the ball fields.
Mosbrucker also pointed out that the school district is not considering selling the property.
"It would be a long-term lease, but the property would belong to the school district," he explained.
Rick Shinn, president of the White Salmon Community Youth organization, recommended that the assisted living center go next to the school, rather than move the sports complex there.
"I can't see why you can't build this facility at Columbia High School rather than move the ball fields into a swamp," Shinn said. "Are we in the real estate business?"
Jason Moon, who serves as president of the local Little League, objected to the fact that the school board embarked on discussions with consultants and proponents of the project with no contact with Little League officers.
"That in itself is concerning for all of us," Moon said. "There is value in that property as a park. More kids use those ball fields than the city park itself. We would like to be a part of any negotiations. If you don't consult with us, we're going to be a major adversary."
Mosbrucker defended the school board's process.
"They haven't come to us with a concrete proposal. We just gave them some parameters," Mosbrucker explained. "This is a presentation, not a proposal. I know how important those fields are; my three kids played on them. This is not even close to being built. When they approached us, we wanted to see if the property was viable before we went to the community for input."
During the meeting, it also came out that the assisted living center proponents first approached the school board about the possibility of putting the facility on the dirt lot across from Whitson Elementary School; a site currently used for parking. However, school officials were not willing to take that site away, given the lack of other parking spaces in the area, and CCHC was directed to the ball fields as another option.
"The current sites to relocate are not adequate to meet our needs," Moon said. "The property at Columbia High School would hold, at best, only two fields. There is no room for four fields, and there are drainage issues as well."
White Salmon resident Craig Spaeth also implored the school district not to destroy the ball fields.
"Seeing parents working in the rain and the dark, raking and painting -- that's a real special thing," Spaeth said. "And the architect said the proposed building was `nicely scaled to the neighborhood.' I don't see anything that would fit into our neighborhood."
Bob Blades, who lives near the ball fields, agreed with Spaeth's assessment.
"I don't think this building is compatible with the neighborhood," Blades said. "My concern is the impact this building would have on the use of our property and on property values in that part of town."
Former White Salmon City Council member Susan Benedict said the land where the ball fields are is vital to the city's quality of life.
"I was on the City Council for eight years," said Benedict, "and on the council we always talked about the lack of open space. That four acres is open space, and we can't afford to lose that."
White Salmon resident Clyde Knowles pointed out that countless hours have been spent by volunteers working to improve the ball fields.
"Over the past 50 years, many, many hours have been spent there," Knowles said. "Building on it would be kind of like digging up a graveyard. It just doesn't seem right."
School board member Kris Kreps said that although he understands the concerns being raised, he has to consider what is best for the school district.
"My intent is that the whole thing would be moved and the ball fields would stay together," Kreps said. "I'm looking at what's best for the school district down the road. We're looking at this proposal seriously to see if it's good for the district."