The Benton County Planning Commission voted 6-0 on Tuesday to grant a conditional use permit to allow some trail expansions and parking area improvements in Oregon State University's McDonald-Dunn Research Forest.
The approval will be good for five years, after which OSU can apply for an extension or request a new permit.
Covering more than 11,000 acres in the hills north of Corvallis, McDonald-Dunn is used by the OSU College of Forestry as a living laboratory for research projects, an outdoor classroom for forestry students, a demonstration site for timberland owners and a source of revenue from commercial logging operations.
Over the years it has also become an important recreational area for local residents, with many miles of trails and logging roads used by hikers, runners, dog walkers, mountain bikers, horseback riders and hunters.
The request approved Tuesday night was a scaled-down version of a plan initially proposed by OSU officials at the commission's Aug. 1 meeting.
Under the original proposal, OSU sought permission for a three-phase plan that would add several miles to the Mac-Dunn trail network while adding parking spaces and restrooms at Lewisburg Saddle and eventually at Oak Creek, the forest's two most heavily used entry points.
But several forest neighbors objected strongly to encouraging more recreational access via Oak Creek Drive, a narrow dead-end road that can become choked with cars parked on the shoulder during peak use periods.
OSU officials offered a modified version of the plan at a second hearing on Aug. 15, but that, too, failed to satisfy the neighbors. Since then, however, the two parties have negotiated a compromise.
Rather than expand parking at the Oak Creek entrance to 40 or 50 spaces as proposed on Aug. 15, OSU will clarify where parking is allowed, which is expected to result in 13 marked stalls and nine additional shoulder spaces for a total of 22 parking spots.
The university also agreed to develop an education and enforcement strategy, improve traffic flow, install bollards to prevent illegal parking inside the fog line, put up signs stating the parking rules and install a webcam so potential visitors can check to see whether parking is available before driving to the trailhead.
Bike racks also will be installed at both the Lewisburg Saddle and Oak Creek entrances, and alternative modes of transportation to the trailheads will be encouraged.
Improvements will be allowed at Lewisburg Saddle as originally proposed, including the installation of a vault toilet, the addition of 15 parking spaces for passenger vehicles and improvements to horse trailer parking.
Planning Commissioner Van Hunsaker initially argued against granting the permit, calling OSU’s plan a “stopgap measure” that didn’t go far enough to meet demand for parking from recreational users.
“Every other conditional use permit we give, that’s part of it,” he said.
But Hunsaker was persuaded to change his vote by Commissioner Jim Damitio, who countered that the compromise plan was the best available option.
“There is never going to be enough parking,” Damitio said. “(But) remarkably, through this process, what we’ve done in the last few months is move people closer together. … I’d like to take full advantage of that.
Although no public testimony was taken on Tuesday, about two dozen people attended the hearing, many of them members of local trail running and mountain biking clubs that use the forest for recreation.
After the vote, OSU Research Forests recreation manager Ryan Brown pronounced herself happy with the outcome.
“I actually feel like the process we’ve had to go through brought us to a better place with Oak Creek,” she said.
And while Brown acknowledged that the plan would result in a net decrease of parking at the Oak Creek entrance and only a modest increase at Lewisburg Saddle, she said OSU Research Forests is serious about finding ways to ease the traffic jams at the popular trailheads.
“Our clubs have started spreading the word already to carpool,” she said. “I think a lot of it is changing the culture of how people get to the forest, and I think people are willing to do that.”