SALEM - An appeal aimed at fighting Morrow County's approval of a plan to build a NASCAR-style racetrack near Boardman will be heard by the State Land Use Board of Appeals Thursday in Salem.

The appeal, filed by local rancher Kelly Doherty, argues the proposed racetrack doesn't fit the rural character of north Morrow County. The track is proposed for a site on Port of Morrow land about five miles west of Boardman. A decision on the appeal is expected by the middle of March.

While part of the appeal is based on whether Morrow County Court followed state land-use laws and its own county zoning guidelines when it granted an exception to allow the project to proceed, the appeal also questions whether there will be enough market for such a project to succeed in a rural area.

The appeal also argues the Port of Morrow land proposed for the project is better suited for farming or ranching, and a racetrack is an inappropriate use for agricultural land. In other words, said Dan Kearns, Doherty's attorney, the racetrack should be built near a large city, not in the country.

"Land use issues aside, this proposal is stupid for a rural area," said Kearns. "This is a big, fat destination resort and Oregon land use laws don't allow that on rural land."

If the racetrack is a success, the impact on the rural character of north Morrow County would be huge, said Kearns. But there's no precedent for siting a racetrack in such a remote area, so there's a good chance that even if the project is completed, it would eventually meet with failure, he said.

"This is an urban development," he said. "It needs to go in an urban area."

Mark Greenfield, the attorney representing the Port of Morrow as the respondent in the appeal, said approval of the project's traffic management plan by the state Department of Transportation demonstrates that race events and the racing fans they attract will overwhelm neither the rural area surrounding the site nor the small city of Boardman nearby.

"Given the scale of this project, I think it says a lot that ODOT didn't appeal it, and that DLCD only appealed it on the lodging justification," he said.

Port Director Gary Neal said he's confident the board will rule in the Port's favor and approve the land use exceptions that will allow the project to proceed.

"As we went through the process we tried to address all the issues that made sense," he said. "We think it's a pretty good project, or else we wouldn't have pursued it."

A separate appeal filed last year by the state Department of Land Conservation and Development challenged the port's plans to develop a 250-room hotel on the property to provide lodging for race competitors and their support teams. The agency agreed to suspend the appeal to allow the port to provide stronger justification for the lodging portion of the project. Neal and port engineer Ron McKinnis will meet with the agency's commission Friday morning in Salem to try to work out an agreement, which could be wrapped up before the land use board issues its ruling on the Doherty appeal, McKinnis said.

While some local residents doubt it will ever be built, the racetrack project has many supporters who cite the potential economic benefits of bringing large-scale events that would attract car racing fans to Morrow County. The site was chosen for the proposed race track because of its easy access to I-84. According to previous news reports, a noise study completed as part of the racetrack proposal indicates the sound of racing cars won't disturb local residents because their homes are outside the affected range.

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