SALEM, Ore. - (Updated: Adding link to submitted testimony)
An Oregon Senate committee got a two-hour lesson in hot-button Central Oregon politics Wednesday afternoon, as both sides put forth their best, impassioned arguments about whether a proposed footbridge across the Upper Deschutes River at Bend’s south end would hurt the river, wildlife and violate the purpose of a designated state scenic waterway or provide a long-sought pedestrian and bicycling trail link.
The bill up for discussion: HB 2027-A, was introduced by Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, and passed unanimously by the House last month – but not with the kind of detailed debate that happened Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources.
“What have you gotten us into here?” Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, the committee chairman, asked Whisnant as he came to the microphone to explain what he’d done and why, calling it “a simple but necessary bill” to ban any bridge over the state-designed scenic stretch of river.
Whisnant noted that the Oregon Parks Department agreed to a staff recommendation last year and rejected the Bend Park and Recreation District’s request to, in the lawmaker’s words, “abolish the rule preventing bridges” from being built on that stretch of river. Instead, he said, the agency launched a broad review of the stretch of river, and after getting that review panel’s report, the department director announced – earlier Wednesday, coincidentally – that no changes in the rules will be proposed.
Whisnant said, “Our aim here is not to choose the option that pleases the most people, but heeds closest to the intent of the scenic waterway law.”
While critics claim a few homeowners with clout are trying to derail the bridge proposal, Whisnant said the bill arose due to citizens’ concerns about the ecological integrity of the corridor and such a bridge’s impact on crucial fish and wildlife habitat.
“My intention with the bill is not anti-recreation,” Whisnant said, noting that one of his favorite memories is when he and wife Josie took a three-day canoe trip on the Upper Deschutes, arranged by the park district and High Desert Museum. Instead, he said, the bill “simply reinforces current scenic waterway protections,” eliminating what bridge foes call a “loophole” that would allow a state-denied bridge to proceed, after a one-year period, if local governments say yes.
But the park district officials who traveled to Salem said it’s been no secret what the agency has been seeking, based on community desires.
“This has been a long-standing community vision for decades,” said Michelle Healy, planning and park services director. “This bridge and trail connectivity have been included in multiple community plans and has been discussed in many public venues.”
Former Bend Mayor Jim Clinton, among other critics, said the park district has threatened to use its power of eminent domain – condemnation – to get the property it needs for such a span.
But park district lawyer Neil Bryant said that in his 15 years with the agency, “we’ve never filed a condemnation.”
Bryant said the only reason the park district considered routes for the bridge on private property was because the “Forest Service said, ‘Before we’d allow a bridge on our property, you have to look at other options.’” He said the preferred alternative moves the bridge away from a subdivision west of the river that opposed it, and the trail to it only crosses private property where a land owner has agreed to the route with a letter of intent.
The park district also stressed that a lengthy public federal environmental review would be required for a bridge to become a reality. And Bryant, echoed by others, said that to call the area “pristine” is unrealistic, also pointing out that mitigation requirements are likely.
Healy put it this way: With all the process that’s required, “We’re talking years – many years” before any bridge could be built.
Park district Executive Director Don Horton said the one-year clock, as he understands it, “was the direction of the Legislature,” to protect private property rights. “I think the intent is like a ‘time out’ for a project, so State Parks would work with the applicant.”
Resident and bridge supporter Chris Cassard said, “The bridge is in a protected area, but it’s adjacent to the urban growth boundary of Bend. Bend is growing rapidly, whether the committee or those of us testifying like it or not. That section of Bend is changing dramatically.”
“The reality is, we’ll still have this crown jewel river, no matter what,” he said. But with more housing development in the area, “it will become an urban river.”
Clinton’s wife, Judy Clinton, said she’s a long-time river advocate who worked with the city to codify protections, and said various environmental groups – including the Coalition for the Deschutes, Central Oregon Land Watch and Oregon Wild – “immediately saw the threat posed by either opening the rules or the loophole” in current laws “and supported this bill because the loophole needed to be filled.”
Another supporter of the bridge ban who traveled to Salem is Michael Eisele, who represented River Bend Estate homeowners and was a member of the Upper Deschutes Advisory Group. He, among others, said it’s not a local land-use dispute but an issue that deserves and needs state attention.
He said the Central Oregon recreation economy is booming because such rules have protected wildlife and natural resources.
Kristen Phillips, another area resident, had submitted written testimony lashing out at the park district for the "destruction" of the Bend Whitewater Park, which he said wreaked "unrepairable havoc on the environment."
And she said in person that the district's potential use of condemnation is a tactic to threaten landowners.
"How ironic that good land stewardship, ownership of property and physical responsibility get summed up as rich people being greedy," she told lawmakers.
"Bend Parks and Rec should not be allowed to bully Oregonians and take their well-earned property at will. It is an agency in dire need of check and balances, and that is your job today. Please send them a strong and undeniable message of House Bill 2027-A."
Retired Bend parks planner Bruce Ronning had a different view, saying that “this kind of close-to-home access” is what’s called for in state recreation trail plans.
But former mayor Clinton attacked the park district for its “concerted assault” on the state’s bridge ban, with “numerous threats of condemnation … setting a dangerous precedent.” He said this state has “no history of condemning land for recreation purposes,” and said the footbridge is not on any city transportation plans and has been part of no city approval process. And he was one of several who noted that “just a mile downstream, there already is a trail bridge across the river.”
It should not come down to trail users’ “convenience in this highly sensitive and protected area,” Clinton said, adding that the so-called loophole has to do with things like paint colors on a home, “not to get around an outright prohibition of bridges.”
The park district, he alleged, is “using bogus statistics to justify a plan cooked up by a dozen people.”
Jim Bruce, a 25-year resident who lives a half-mile from the scenic waterway stretch, said decisions should be based on “the best available science, not on the whim of any local government agency.”
“Recreation can be a significant source of disturbance to wildlife,” and already has been proven to impact the ecology of such areas, Bruce said, calling it “mind-boggling” to let the park district proceed with its plans.
Steven Thompson, who has created a wildlife sanctuary in the area, said trail connectivity is one thing – but biologists are concerned about the impact on connectivity of deer range in the critical area.
Lisa Seales, an education with a Ph.D. in ecology, made similar points, saying that while she enjoys the river and trails in the area, her career has been about “helping strike a balance” between recreation and protection of natural resources. And she argued the park district’s planned footbridge would set a “dangerous precedent” for scenic waterways, while the bill would maintain protections the area needs and deserves.
Another issue up for debate was whether such decisions are best made at the state or local level, with advocates for each. There also were claims that the park district had shifted its proposed bridge spot just outside of the city limits (urban growth boundary) only recently, and could always change it back if it so wished.
In the end, Dembrow, the panel chairman, thanked all who came over to Salem to speak, as well as those who submitted written comments.
“I’ve learned a lot,” he said. “A week ago, I knew nothing about this. … We have a lot of research we’re going to have to do on this issue.”
The next step, he said, is a work session to discuss and vote on the bill, and any potential amendments, such as one planned by Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, who is not a member of the committee. Knopp has said he believes such a bridge should be allowed on Forest Service property, but only if several conditions can be met, such as no private property condemnation and an environmental study done to ensure no negative impacts.
Dembrow said because of the way the bill got unanimous House approval – a so-called “gut and stuff” of an unrelated bill – “there’s a lot more pressure on us to really look at all the written material, ponder the testimony, have conversations and figure out how to go forward.”
The committee must act by June 2, the deadline for bills to make it out of committee, the senator said. “So sometime in the next couple weeks, we’re going to figure out what we’re going to do. We can promise we’ll look very long and hard at this issue.”
And whatever their decision – or the bill’s fate, if it makes the Senate floor – the bridge debate back in Bend is very likely to continue.
To see the testimony submitted to the committee, visit: https://olis.leg.state.or.us/liz/2017R1/Committees/SENR/2017-05-10-15-00/MeetingMaterials