The Umatilla County Board of Commissioners used a public meeting Wednesday to unanimously approve a series of private meetings to address a contentious issue with residents of Airport Road in the Hermiston area.

The county wants to rebuild East Airport Road, the main feeder to the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center, but nearby residents say the project would cause them to lose sections of their property that are in the county’s right-of-way.

To address their concerns, the county plans to convene a county commissioner, an engineer, a representative from the county road department, and others deemed necessary to meet with property owners on an individual basis.

But officials involved with the project felt confident that they could allay residential concerns.

“It’s somewhat unprecedented to do this,” Commissioner George Murdock said. “You usually go ahead and do (the project). It would seem to me, from what I can understand, if you go out and meet with every individual property owner, and let them be heard, and let their interest be represented … I don’t think we can say there will be no impact, but there will be less of an impact.”

Fellows said he thinks residents on the south side of the road will be surprised by how minimal the impacts of the development will have on their properties once the county meets with them.

The county hopes to hold meetings within the next month and Fellows said residents can invite whomever they want to sit in with them during the meetings. Chas Hutchins, an engineer with Anderson Perry, the firm designing the road, said notes will be taken during the meetings and a summary of discussions will be submitted to commissioners.

Fellows said construction could start late winter or early spring in 2020, but the new road will not be ready in time for the Umatilla County Fair.

Chris Waine, the founder and leader of the Hermiston Airport Road Neighborhood Association, has been a vocal critic of the county’s Airport Road plans.

Although he was unable to attend Wednesday’s meeting because of a doctor’s appointment, he remained skeptical of the county’s overall plans for the road.

While calling the county’s plan to meet with the property owners “a step in the right direction,” he said in an interview that he’s already made the community’s concerns known in meetings with the commissioners, staff, and engineers.

He still intends to submit a petition to spur the commission to hold a public hearing to discuss the road project.

If that doesn’t work, Waine said he’ll consider further options.

“This isn’t something we’re going to back down from,” he said.

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