UMATILLA - A Umatilla business owner was removed from the City Council meeting Tuesday by the chief of police after vehemently objecting to the council's decision to preserve a majority of the median dividing Sixth Street, the town's main thoroughfare.
The council ordered the removal of a total of 180 feet of the median, a decision that was met by an angry response from some business owners who say it's not enough to reverse economic losses they've suffered since the medians were installed.
Attorney Bill Kuhn, representing the business owners, told the council that the medians have seriously harmed revenue for businesses on both sides of the street.
"There are times when even the best of intentions have unintended consequences," Kuhn said.
The medians were intended to slow the flow of traffic through downtown Umatilla, create safer pedestrian movements and beautify the downtown area. They were started in October of 2003 and finished five weeks later.
Kuhn argued that the medians have done nothing for pedestrians and are suffocating businesses around them, causing a "serious unintended economic impact."
Kuhn went on to tell the council that both Red Apple Market and the Umatilla Inn, both in the middle of median sections, have steadily lost money since their placement. Red Apple Market, Kuhn said, has lost more than $100,000 in the last year, and the Umatilla Inn has lost a reported $30,000.
When asked by the council if other factors besides the medians, such as inclement winter weather or higher gas prices, could have been to blame for those losses, Kuhn said he did not believe the medians were the only reasons for those losses.
Following discussion, the City Council unanimously voted to remove only small sections from the median, with the intent of creating better turning radiuses, but it kept the bulk of the dividers. About 180 feet of the 1,000 feet of median will be removed.
Umatilla Inn and Suites owner Hasmukh Mistery was removed from the council chambers by the chief of police for speaking out of turn following the council decision.
"They already made up their minds," Mistery said from outside of the chambers. "The whole town is going to be for sale."
Mistery said his property has not gone up in value in 10 years and is starting to lose value. He said he will likely sell his business and move on.
When asked if he thought the medians were hurting city businesses, Umatilla City Manager Larry Clucas said it was expected that businesses would suffer a short-term loss, but he felt once people became used to the medians then business would begin to bounce back.
"I think there are a lot of different issues in terms of downtown property," Clucas said. "The purpose is for safety. The purpose is to make downtown Umatilla look better."
Clucas said the original plan for the medians called for the strips from River Road on the east side of town all the way past City Hall. Budget constraints, Clucas said, made it possible to install the medians only in a 1,000 foot section on the east side of town. Clucas also said the city installed the medians there because it was judged to be the busier section of town for traffic.
The medians cost about $84,000, with most of the money coming from a grant provided by the Oregon Department of Transportation.
The debate over the median has taken it's toll on the council, including Robert Toliver who announced he would not seek re-election in December, largely due to the controversy spawned by the median.
"I'm tired and fed up with people coming in here and saying it is the city's fault," Toliver said. "It seems like every step we go forward we go back three steps. I'm sorry but I have had enough."
The sections of median should be removed by the fall.