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County rejects scenic river house

For three years, Oregon resident and landowner Gabriel Watson has gone through multiple legal proceedings in an effort to claim the right to build on his own land.

His grandfather once lived on the quarter-acre lot, located in North Junction about 20 miles outside of the city of Maupin. Littered with sagebrush, a caboose with ties to the old railroad and a commanding view of the Deschutes River, it was once a home.

Then, 17 years ago, a flood changed the entire landscape and swept the tiny red caboose clear across the field until it came to rest on its side. While all the other neighbors began rebuilding their destroyed homes within the year and one even went so far as to resurrect the felled caboose, no one returned to replace what once stood on the Watson property.

What the conflict really boils down to is the fact that Watson’s property is located in not only a flood hazard zone, but one which, due to its “natural value” and proximity to a “scenic river,” prohibits the building of new dwellings not associated with farm use, the county report states.

Due to these prohibitions, on Aug. 14, the planning commission denied Watson’s request for a “conditional use permit to construct a single-family dwelling not provided in conjunction with farm use.”

John Roberts, planning director, said at the most recent hearing held before the Wasco County Board of Commissioners Thursday, Oct. 17 that, “Short of re-zoning, I can’t see how we could make it happen… The legal language seems very clear… [The planning commission] could not approve [Watson’s] development plan because of this language.”

After the flood, residents were mandated to begin rebuilding procedures within six months in order to retain their status as “non-conforming” dwellings. They were able to do so because their homes had stood long before the laws illegalizing them came into existence in the 1970s. “Grandfathered” in, the owners of these cabins and small homes were allowed to stay, despite the fact that such non-farming structures are exceptions to current law.

“It’s been 17 years since that flood,” County commissioner Rod Runyan said. “So, why now? Was it supposed to be held open forever? Rules change, life goes on. I mean, I feel bad about it, but that’s a lot of years to just let things sit. And the rules are what they are, so I’m heading towards the decision made by the planning department on this.”

Commissioner Scott Hege, however, said he was less certain.

“I’m just noticing the time and the complexity of what we’ve been presented and… it doesn’t seem like it’s a super easy solution unless you just say ‘fine, reject them and move on.’”

When asked if there was anything else that the planning commission would like the commissioners to keep in mind before attempting to reach a final decision, Senior Planner Joey Shearer said, “There have been basically no arguments [against Watson’s application] that are actual findings” and at least in regards to the “key details” of the case the arguments that were made were “all incorrect.”

When Runyon proceeded to move forward with the motion to uphold the planning commission’s decision, Commissioner Steve Kramer agreed, but Hege remained opposed.

“Generally, I support private property rights and I understand it’s in a protected area, but [Watson] is just defending his right to do what he wants with his own property… What is most confusing to me is you have one side arguing that ‘no, we have no control, the state’s mandating this,’ and the other side saying ‘no, we have more flexibility than that.’ And, honestly, I don’t know who to believe.”

Roberts had concluded his original presentation on the Watson application by saying that the planning commission’s decision to deny it will “definitely change how we look at applications for development on all areas overlooking scenic rivers in the future… and informs us that prior practice does not necessarily establish precedence.”

At the close of the hearing, Commissioner Hege related some final concerns.

“I just feel that the unintended consequences of this decision might be widespread and I don’t like that idea, honestly. I like the idea of somehow being able to go through a legislative process, but at the same time I also understand… that we don’t have the resources or the staff at this time to continue.”

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