South 16th Street in the Millpond Crossing development
A view of completed Phase 2 homes on South 16th Street in the Millpond Crossing development. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Millpond Crossing subdivision setbacks to date have included rising costs, methane, other issues

The Millpond Crossing housing development in Philomath appears to be headed in a new direction. Originally planned as a 169-home subdivision to be constructed in five phases, Millpond went back to the drawing board following a series of challenges over the past several months, including a methane issue that brought in the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, rising construction costs and pandemic-related supply chain issues.

Levi Miller, Millpond Crossing owner, announced proposed changes to the company’s construction plans moving forward.

“To combat these challenges, help keep costs down and keep this mission going, modifications to the original subdivision plan have been submitted to the city,” stated a flyer that was circulated to Millpond Crossing residents.

The mission? Since Day 1 dating back to city meetings four years ago, Miller’s narrative has been to bring affordable housing to Philomath. The houses built in phases 1 and 2 on South 15th and South 16th Street north of Chapel Drive have generally sold in the $250,000 to $350,000 range.

According to Miller’s circulated information, a proposed update to the remaining phases of Millpond Crossing “include the addition of multiple townhomes, which will greatly reduce developmental and building costs, further allowing prices to remain within reach for families, first-time home buyers, etc.”

Oregon Department of Environmental Quality Documents
Notice of Planning Commission Public Hearing
Methane Work Assessment Plan
DEQ’s Millpond Crossing Fact Sheet

The new configuration also proposes a new location for a neighborhood park further away from Chapel Drive and encompassing a larger area.

The Philomath Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 22 at 6 p.m. at City Hall to consider Millpond Crossing’s major modification application. The city offers various ways for citizens to comment.

Putting townhomes on the table

Miller said increasing housing demands, low supply and rising prices have shut out many families from the ownership market while they face rising rents.

“What he has argued in his application that he submitted is that in order to keep homes affordable and not have to charge $500,000 for a house, he needs to adjust the product he’s putting out there — a less-expensive alternative than a full-sized 2,500-square-foot house,” City Manager Chris Workman said. “So that’s where he’s looking at the townhomes.”

Townhomes sit on smaller lots, are stacked closer together and tend to have smaller square footage. Thus, the builder can keep costs down to try to stay within its stated mission of providing affordable housing.

“Most of them, it looks like he has them spaced to where you’d have essentially eight townhomes kind of side-by-side and then you’d have a break and then you’d have another eight,” Workman said.

The townhomes and lots would be privately owned but share common walls with neighbors. The design shows parking in the back with a shared driveway, including a single-car garage and other spaces.

A certain number of single-family homes would continue to be built in the coming phases. In all, the number of residences would increase to 190 or so, Workman estimated.

Benton Habitat for Humanity has committed to a partnership with the developer “to help ensure the remainder of Millpond Crossing homes are sold to owner occupants, limiting the possibility of these homes becoming rentals/investment properties,” according to the Millpond Crossing information provided to residents.

In a Dec. 12 letter to the Planning Commission, Benton Habitat Executive Director Karen Rockwell wrote, “We are excited to explore opportunities with Millpond Crossing that would ensure that the homes are sold to hardworking, low to moderate income households.”

Workman said Miller does not want the homes to be bought up by investors.

“There have been a few of these (completed) homes that have been bought by investors and are rental properties, which is fine here and there, but you’d hate to see a large block of these come in here … and become rental units,” Workman said. “His target is homeowners where he’s really trying to help is with the entry-level, first-time homebuyer or low- to middle-income homebuyer.”

Changes to the street configuration are part of the proposed plans and anticipated traffic patterns would need to be considered.

“Any time a new subdivision comes in or a development comes in, we look at connectivity and vehicle patterns,” Workman said.

For example, the developer had proposed that Timothy Street be extended only a short distance further to accommodate access to a few more houses. A street south of Timothy would also be eliminated because of the park’s new location.

However, Workman prefers Timothy Street to continue all the way from 16th to 17th for west-east connectivity. If that happens, housing would go in on the north and south sides of the street to help pay for that infrastructure.

A public hearing is scheduled for 6 p.m. Feb. 22 before the Planning Commission. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Discovery of methane concentrations

Miller has seen his share of challenges with the Millpond Crossing development, which was originally approved by the Philomath City Council in May 2018.

“Some of them have been out of his control, some of them are just the complexities of any development project,” Workman said.

Millpond Crossing represents the largest housing subdivision that Philomath has looked at in many years.

“It’s large, it’s a big area, it’s an abandoned mill site so that added some complexities,” Workman said. “It’s multi-phases, there was a master plan overlay, there’s additional development agreements. So there’s definitely been some complexities that have added to it. I think the biggest of all of them has been finding the methane on there.”

Yes, the methane issue has been a source of concern, frustration and delays. Defined as a naturally occurring gas, methane is not considered toxic — but it is flammable and in confined spaces, can cause an explosion or displace oxygen.

Decades ago, the property had been an agricultural site before it was developed in the 1950s into a sawmill and lumber processing facility. After the operation closed down 40 years later, the site was dismantled from 1998 to 2000 and two ponds were reportedly filled with wood waste and debris.

“The fill material is assumed to be the source of elevated methane concentrations that have been observed in soil gas measurements,” the DEQ wrote in an August 2021 report.

In October 2018, Millpond Crossing enrolled in DEQ’s Voluntary Cleanup Program, which had been created to streamline the cleanup process while ensuring compliance with Oregon environmental regulations.

After the developer was well into Phase 1 of the project, DEQ started doing additional testing, Workman said, which is when the first methane readings occurred. During Phase 2, the state agency got more involved to require additional testing.

“I think Levi would tell you now that he knows more about methane and methane exposure and methane mitigation than he did three years ago when he started this project,” Workman said. ‘It’s definitely been a learning experience through all of that.”

Testing begins and leads to plan

In June 2020, Aerotech Environmental Consulting measured methane in 13 test areas with varying concentrations. The readings were lowest along Chapel Drive and higher in sections generally east of South 16th.  On Feb. 3, 2021, PBS Engineering and Environmental measured ambient air in the crawl spaces and garages of nine existing residences and found no detections of methane.

The developer and Oregon DEQ entered into an agreement in July 2021 to determine appropriate actions to pursue.

As a precautionary measure, fans that run continuously as well as methane alarms were installed in garages and crawl spaces. The developer said there were efforts to remove organic fill within the footprint of homes and replace with rock before construction started.

New construction activities were paused last summer.

In a fact sheet distributed to residents, Oregon DEQ advised them to have no open outdoor flames and avoid anything that would generate sparks on the property, including not using powered lawnmowers around residences or structures. Gas grills were deemed OK to use if off the ground in a ventilated space.

Other mitigation measures have been implemented with Millpond Crossing entering into a memorandum of understanding with the city to outline a commitment to follow through with the ongoing DEQ process and work plan. Coordinating with other entities, such as utility companies, was also part of the expected scope of work.

In a disclosure that pending homeowners were asked to sign, MPC Builders stated that it “does not believe methane gas will be an issue in your house in the future, but it cannot guarantee future conditions.” Thus, the fans and alarms were installed. People that had entered into home purchase contracts were given the option of walking away.

Before anything was done on the property, an environmental assessment had been done with the most significant finding being some petroleum contamination on the southeast corner. Recommendations on a cleanup were made and included in the city’s conditions of approval.

However, nothing about methane from the environmental consultant came up at the time — even though the property had been a mill site.

“Knowing what we know today, I think Levi would make sure that was included in an environmental assessment on the property,” Workman said.

Other situations have challenged the development beyond the methane — infrastructure decisions and inaccurate property lines among them.

“There were definitely some things that were self-caused with some of the delays and some of the costs that were there, but there were other things that were just unforeseen by anybody,” Workman summed up.

Work began several months ago on this lot on South 16th Street looking southeast with Chapel Drive in the distance. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Plan to relocate neighborhood park

Miller pointed to the park relocation as a safer spot further away from Chapel Drive. In addition, it would be larger than the previous design, although a proposed pond will no longer be included with its location closer to homes.

MPC Builders was looking for residents to participate on a park committee to help make decisions on everything from the name to the final layout to the amenities (walking trail, sports court, picnic tables, playgrounds). Workman said Miller was open to installing public restrooms and a covered pavilion area.

The Philomath Park Advisory Board would also have input.

If the major modification application is not approved, the developer’s options could be to continue with the original plans — and likely that would involve much more expensive houses, possibly hiring a new builder — or walk away and sell the property.

Workman said Miller has shown a continued commitment with the project.

“I give Levi some credit that he’s still at the table,” Workman said. “He’s still in Philomath, he’s not giving up on the project.”

In fact, Miller hosted a community meeting for Millpond Crossing residents on Tuesday evening.

“I see somebody that’s trying to make amends for issues in the past and trying to get the project around the corner and kind of pick it back up again,” Workman said. “I see good things happening with this project.”

If the developer’s modifications are approved, the project would move into a Phase 2B for construction on the east side of South 16th. Phase 3 would include a northern area of the property and before any building permits are issued, Workman said infrastructure would need to be completed (streets, paths, shared driveways, etc.) as well as the neighborhood park. Phase 4 would be closer to Chapel Drive and feature a cul-de-sac with townhomes on either side.

For the Feb. 22 public hearing, those who wish to comment can attend in person at City Hall or through Zoom, or submit them in writing ahead of time. The Planning Commission will then determine if the application meets applicable criteria for approval.

Certain components will be reanalyzed from street circulation to the methane concerns. Some sections of the original approval will not be a part of the review if they will not change, Workman added.

“As long as they’re at the table, the city will continue to work with Mr. Miller on making this project happen for him,” Workman said. “I think we owe that to him; I think we owe it to future residents of the subdivision. You know, we look ahead to five, 10 years from now, I think we’re going to have a really nice subdivision and a nice place for people to live in Philomath, which was the goal of this project from the get-go.”