A local preservation group has decided to oppose a plan to build apartments at Witham Oaks - despite the developer's promise to set aside more than two-thirds of the property as a natural conservation area.

In an email to supporters on Thursday, the Friends of Witham Oaks board of directors announced it had voted to fight Campus Crest's request to rezone the property from low-density to high-density residential.

The North Carolina student housing developer aims to build 296 apartments on the Witham Oaks site, which is on Northwest Harrison Boulevard about 1½ miles west of Oregon State University's central campus.

To do so, it will need permission from the Corvallis Planning Commission to change the zoning on the property, which previously was approved for a 221-lot subdivision of mainly single-family homes. The Friends formed to preserve the property after that development plan fell through.

In a meeting in Corvallis last month, Campus Crest executives told Friends of Witham Oaks leaders they only wanted to build on about 28 acres of the 95-acre parcel. They said the rest - apart from street extensions required by the city - would be protected under a conservation easement.

Friends President John Foster called that a tempting offer, but he said it wasn't enough to make him support what he considers a bad proposal that would mar an attractive open space and create significant livability issues for the neighborhood.

"We opposed building this thing as low-density housing," Foster said Friday. "But we really think this is even worse than the previous plan."

Foster said the location is too far from campus to be practical for students and would create problems with traffic congestion. He also worried about people driving home drunk from downtown bars.

"It's just too damn far from everything," he argued. "Traffic might well be worse than with the other development."

Vice President Louise Marquering said she's against the zoning change on principle.

"The citizens of Corvallis voted to annex that as single-family housing," she said. "The people think it should stay single-family housing."

But Marquering also thinks the city needs to do a better job of planning to accommodate the housing needs of college students and young families. At an Oct. 3 meeting, she urged the City Council to consider the Campus Crest project in the context of several other large apartment complexes also being proposed for development.

"I really think, before any zone changes are made, Corvallis and OSU need to figure out where all these apartments and houses are going to go," she said.

A Campus Crest official said he was unaware of the Friends of Witham Oaks decision to fight the zoning change but added it would not alter the company's plans.

"We have been and will continue to work with the local community to do the best job we can with that property," said Mike Hartnett, the firm's chief investment officer. "We respect their point of view, but we still look forward to having an ongoing dialogue and constructive conversations."

In Thursday's email, Friends of Witham Oaks asked for a show of solidarity against the zone change request when the Planning Commission holds a public hearing on the matter.

"We will need all of our supporters and their families to present testimony at the hearing," the email said. "It can be either written or oral testimony, but we will need a significant physical presence."

A hearing date will be set after Campus Crest files a formal zoning change application.

The group also asked for donations for operating expenses such as printing, mailing and technical studies.

Friends of Witham Oaks already has raised close to $300,000, but that money was earmarked for buying the land. Thursday's email included a form donors could sign granting permission for earlier gifts to be used for operating costs.

Contact Bennett Hall at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@gazettetimes.com.

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Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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