A local traffic ticket case has revealed a decades-old misapplication of a Cottage Grove school zone sign and has potentially moved some in the city to amend state law.
The incident began with the issuing of a traffic citation to area resident Nicholas Lake in front of Great Days Early Education Center on River Road and ended with a small but surprising victory for Lake on his appeal.
The case called into the question the definition of Great Days as a school under Oregon Revised Statutes (ORS) and thus its legitimacy in utilizing a school zone speed reduction sign on the adjacent road.
The center provides child care, early childhood education and provides services for children with special needs.
On April 11, 2019, Lake was driving his daughter to school, heading south on River Road where the posted speed limit is 35 mph. A few minutes after 7 a.m., Lake passed Great Days at 35 mph, at which point he was pulled over and issued a ticket for disobeying a school zone sign to reduce speed to 20 mph.
The citation, however, contained mistakes such as Lake’s eye color, vehicle type and had misstated the location as “Delight Valley School Zone,” which prompted Lake to seek out the officer.
In the days waiting to speak with the citing officer about the ticket, Lake followed a hunch and began digging through state law as it pertained to his citation. In his research, Lake found that Great Days did not fit the description of a school under ORS.
On school zones, ORS 801.462 defines a school as “a public or private educational institution for one or more levels kindergarten through grade 12 or a publicly funded early childhood education program located in a building currently or previously owned by a school district…”
Further, Lake took issue with the school zone sign stating to drive 20 mph between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. on school days. Great Days states on its website that it is open all year round, except five major holidays.
“So now we’re going to enforce a school zone in front of a day care Monday through Friday all year round,” he said. “It kind of seems like a little bit of a trap.”
After speaking to the citing officer about the situation and the mistakes on the citation, however, the citation was amended on April 16 to correct the address and the fine was raised from $230 to $350.
Lake admitted to some frustration in trying to rectify the situation.
“I tried to work with the city,” he said, in order to “inform that we’re enforcing traffic laws in a school zone that’s not a legal school zone.”
However, he says, he did not make much headway.
“My thought was, instead of anybody … coming into town to visit and on Aug. 1 goes through there at 2 in the afternoon at 35 miles an hour and gets popped for 15 over a 20 because school’s in session – that’s not right,” he said.
Lake decided to challenge the citation in court by representing himself.
On June 20, the final court date, a judge pro tempore oversaw the case. City records did not identify the judge.
Lake stated that he cross-examined Barbara Howell, the executive director of Great Days, who had testified on behalf of the city. In the process, Lake said he established that the center was not publicly funded, had never been owned by a school district and was not teaching K-12 in strictly educational capacity.
The center provides all day care which includes preschool, pre-K and afterschool services for an age range of 2-and-a-half to 12 years old, though its classes focus on social and academic education to prepare children for kindergarten and provides afterschool care to older children to aid with their homework.
In a surprising move, the judge ruled in favor of Lake on the grounds that Great Days did not fall under the definition in the ORS.
Cottage Grove Police Captain Conrad Gagner reflected on the turn of events.
“The bottom line is, he’s made sure the police are crossing their t’s and dotting their i’s,” he said. “And he successfully argued for that.”
In July, the city replaced the school zone sign with one which slows traffic to 20 mph “while children are present.”
In the aftermath of the ruling, questions arose as to how the misapplication of the sign came to be overlooked.
Gagner stated that the police department had no reason to question posted signage.
“If it’s posted as a school zone, then we were under the assumption that … it was done in accordance with the statute,” he said.
The city, too, was taken aback.
“In our researching back, it’s been some form of a day care, school or kindergarten since the ‘50s or earlier,” said City Manager Richard Meyers. “At times it was doing more school-level things than it is now. Some are saying the school district was using it for schooling, but we couldn’t find anything that they owned it.”
Great Days has been a nonprofit child care center since 1975. Before then, Howell said the building was run by the Seventh-day Adventist Church in an educational capacity and, for as long as anyone can remember, the building has been assumed to be a school site.
As state law has changed over the years, it remains a possibility that the institution at one point did legally qualify as a school.
On paper, the nonprofit is currently designated as a “child care center” and has been approved as a “private school approved for public school or agency placement of children with disabilities,” according to the Oregon Department of Education.
“[The certification] enables your agency to contract with public schools or agencies to provide early intervention or early childhood special education services for preschool-age children,” said Howell.
Lake’s case raises the question about other drivers who have been ticketed in the improperly-labeled school zone over the years and paid their fines with no contest.
“There’ve definitely been some,” said Gagner, estimating four or five tickets a year along the stretch. However, Gagner could not speak authoritatively on the implications for those previously ticketed and it remains unclear if there is pathway of recourse for these drivers.
Under normal circumstances, paying a traffic ticket is tantamount to admission of guilt and an appeal is no longer on the table.
Gagner was welcoming of clarification on the issue.
“We want to act in accordance with that law, of course,” he said. “If it turns out to be completely unethical or unlawful, we want to know.”
Whatever the implications, a consensus seems to exist on the need for a solution.
Howell said she has noticed a tendency for speeding along the stretch in front of Great Days.
“There are buses and [drivers] still don’t slow down,” she said.
Meyers described the road as an enticing place to speed.
“This all goes to how drivers react to the environment around them for what speed they travel,” he said. “River Road is a good example: a pretty straight wide street with a pretty good shoulder on it and the lanes are wide. As a driver, you go faster.”
The stretch River Road from Main Street to Woodson Place is mostly unimpeded by stop signs, driveways or intersections.
Gagner proposed that the stretch needs a speed consistent with an area highly concentrated by young people.
“If you’ve got a 20-mile-per-hour school zone in front of the high school, then one certainly needs to be there, too, in my opinion,” he said.
Howell also felt the street would benefit from such a speed limit.
“Twenty [miles per hour] is great,” she said. “It slows people down and they have enough room to stop.”
The somewhat recent addition of a crosswalk at the site has been one tool in combating the speeding.
“It was a good thing we put the crosswalk in — just about a year and half or two years ago — and that’s helped,” Meyers said.
Before the crosswalk, “it was terrible,” said Howell.
As other means to curb hurried traffic such as speed bumps are off the table, the city has courted with an option that may have repercussions far beyond the community.
“We’d have to actually go through the state legislative process to get the law changed,” said Mey-ers. “We’ve got some ideas, but we want to sit down with our legislators and say, ‘What do you think? How would people feel on this if we tied it to funding sources — if we tied to number of kids or size of the school?’ Some of those could be an area that could be going that way.”
A significant challenge in changing the statute lies in creating an appropriate definition, however.
“The intent probably is, with the state law, that they don’t want all of those [daycares] recognized as schools,” said Meyers. “Then you’d have a school zone every four houses through a neighborhood. We believe the intent is to try to restrict that to something that is an actual institution.”
Finding that right balance will be part of the conversation if the city moves ahead with the idea.
“We need to figure out how to define that and not create another situation,” said Meyers. “We’ll meet with our legislators and see how receptive they are. They might have some thoughts as well.”
Howell posited that certain centers could qualify by attendance.
“If they go to the state, I think there should be a limit of how many children attend in a building for education purposes,” she said. “Probably at least 15.”
This year, however, is the Oregon Legislative Assembly’s short session. During short sessions, which take place every even-numbered year and last no more than 35 days, senators can introduce one piece of legislation and representatives two.
Getting the school zone statute on a legislator’s wish list, then, may not be a viable option this session.
Another pathway exists in changing the stated speed limit on River Road, however it would require the city to appeal to the Oregon Department of Transportation and go through a speed study. The process may not guarantee the city getting its desired speed.
Short of changing the statute and the speed limit itself, a strategic navigation of the law has even been floated as possibility, even if fancifully.
A potential loophole exists in which the school district may purchase the land and sell it back to Great Days, thus qualifying the land as being “previously owned by a school district” in accordance with the state statute.
“It’s an option,” said Meyers. “But it’s not as legitimate as trying to make it really fit.”
Howell agreed the solution is not ideal.
“I would rather have the state tell me that we’re a school,” she said. “I always felt that we were a school. Especially since we’ve got that designation from the Department of Education.”