July 25, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

People concerned about too much growth in the county and the affect of big box stores on downtown businesses have again told the Union County commissioners that the county's proposed population projection is too high.

The county hired Benkendorf Associates to predict the county's population increase, but at the request of Island City, county officials voted to allow that city a greater projected growth rate than originally proposed.

County-wide, the rate is projected at 1 percent per year until 2020, but Island City's growth is predicted to be 5 percent per year. (The Observer published an incorrect Island City growth rate in its Monday edition.) Most other cities are predicted to grow at 1 percent per year.

In the wake of state opposition to the original Benkendorf prediction, the county had the consultant revise the projections, using Portland State University's calculations. Wednesday's public hearing covered that rewrite.

During the hearing, testimony in opposition to the population figures outweighed support of the plan.

Opponents said the projection is higher than historic growth and higher than any likely growth over the next 20 years. Several also questioned whether the report is scientific. Brett Kelver of Oregon Rural Action presented the commissioners with a petition opposing the projections signed by 23 county residents, including several owners of downtown shops.

Mark Tipperman, a La Grande lawyer, suggested that the county accept a 0.4 percent growth rate until that rate proves to be too low.

"When the rate increases substantially, then we can take a look at further changes," he said.

Most opponents of the population projection were applauded by the more than 30 people gathered in the commissioners' meeting room.

Downtown merchant Lynne Dixon, who manages the Clothes Closet, urged the commissioners to consider the plight of downtown family businesses.

"It's difficult now for a family business to survive," she said. "We can't go anyplace else."

Jim McIver, an opponent of the Benkendorf projections, said, "There's no reason for these projected growth rates. Let's work with what we've already got in La Grande."

Shelley Cimon, who urged the commissioners not to "lose the integrity of downtown," said that a store owner had asked about the possibility of evening hearings.

"One store owner said they can't get to the morning meetings; they are working," she said.

The commissioners did not indicate any plans to have evening meetings.

Both proponents and opponents seemed to agree that family-wage jobs should be a priority for the county.

La Grande planner Mike Hyde testified that the city needs a population growth rate of 1 percent in order to increase its urban growth boundary and attract new commercial and industrial business.

Joel Frank, director of the Union County Economic Development Corporation, said the community needs a greater industrial base.

Several who testified expressed displeasure with the idea of a big box store, such as Wal-Mart, which has told The Observer that it intends to build a super store across from its present store on Island Avenue.

Before construction on any such store can begin, the corporation must acquire a number of permits from both La Grande and Island City. Public hearings must take place on land-use changes.

The county commissioners and County Planner Hanley Jenkins said that the plans for a super store have not driven the population study. Research into future population began as early as 1997, two years after the Oregon Legislature passed a requirement that counties coordinate population projections, Jenkins said.

Public meetings about the county's future population were not held at that time, he said after the meeting. The staff members from the cities and the county worked together.

"The cities pushed us (for a population study) because they needed it," Jenkins said.

The county will accept written testimony on the population projection until 5 p.m. Aug. 2. Rebuttal from supporters of the plan will be accepted until 5 p.m. Aug. 9. Testimony may be delivered to the county commissioners' office, 1106 K Ave.

The commissioners will discuss the population projection at 10 a.m. Aug. 21.

No public testimony will be taken then.