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County rejects Sevenmile land plan

Room 302 of the Wasco County Courthouse was packed with residents of Sevenmile Road Feb. 5 when the Wasco County Board of Commissioners sat down to hear public comments and discuss issues surrounding the proposed zone change of eight forest tax lots on Sevenmile Hill.

The commission rejected the application in response to neighbor objections.

The lots, located south of Sevenmile Hill Road, south of its intersection with Richard Road, east and west of Osborn Cut-off Road and about 4.5 miles southwest of The Dalles, are all currently zoned as “forest” lands, but landowner Ken Thomas appealed to the Planning Department to rezone the area in order to make room for further development.

According to Associate Planner Dawn Baird, Thomas’ central concern is that the “rural lifestyle” which currently exists on top of Sevenmile is “incompatible with commercial forest use” and, since residences have already been built around the protected property, further residential development would be “in keeping with what’s already there.”

By changing the property’s current designation from just “forest” use to “forest-farm,” Wasco County Planning Department officials said it would serve to “relax” some of the current fire safety standards and would remove the Sevenmile Hill Forest Protection Overlay zones, instead relying on standards established by the Land Use and Development Ordinance (LUDO).

This rezoning would allow for more residential development opportunities, and would also serve to make the Bonneville power line the point beyond which no further development could occur, potentially ending the controversy on what can or can’t be built and where.

The Planning Commission recommended the commission approve the plan to rezone, but on the condition that a requirement “prohibiting the co-mingling of wells” be put into place. In addition, the recommendation states that the commission “remains concerned about addressing the water issue, and the additional fire suppression issues that would result from additional development in the rezone area.”

Recorded comments from previous planning commission hearings included those from local Mid-Columbia Fire and Rescue Division Chief Dan Hammel.

“My opinion is that we have not seen a measured increase in fires as a direct result of development. Much of the subject properties are not maintained. Oregon fire code would require better access to water supplies… and an appropriate level of water supply should be established as a response to any new development.”

While the planning commission agreed that the availability of water is a major issue, it also stated that the tax lots currently designated for forest use are neither “well-suited” to foresting purposes, nor do they qualify as “physically developed.”

“Since the zoning laws changed in 1994, it’s made it very restrictive on owners getting approval for the construction of dwellings in a forest zone,” Baird said. “Prior to 1994, the laws allowed non-forest dwellings to be built, but that’s not the case anymore.”

David Wilson, Sevenmile resident and owner of two of the tax lots proposed for rezoning, said he is in favor of the change.

“You go up Sevenmile, and there’s no distinct line that divides where you can build and where you can’t,” he said. “All of a sudden, you come to my place and it’s zoned as 80 acres. Mine is a 40-acre parcel that somehow got thrown into the mix. Neither one of them met zoning requirements, and yet they have two legal homes on them. One of them is a home that was built in 1860 and which I technically own, but can’t do anything with because of the way the rules are laid out. It’s sat empty for 15 years. I would like to be able to remodel it, and sell it along with a 10-acre parcel in my retirement, but there’s no way to do that right now.”

Despite agreement that the lots’ present zoning has made it difficult for a number of landowners to develop their property, concerns surrounding increased fire danger and the decreasing water supplies which could result from further residential development were repeatedly voiced by community members.

“The fact is the BPA powerline break would never be sufficient to stop a fire,” fellow property owner Jill Barker said. “In the event of a wildfire, water availability is crucial to residents. The developer must demonstrate there is enough water for all residents and prove ahead of time that there is also enough for adequate fire suppression should the need arise.”

Property owner and professional well-driller Richard Murray said he too had doubts about the current water supply being able to withstand more residents and that the proposed rezoning could have a largely negative impact.

“It’s just not in the public interest,” he said. “Sometimes when you make a rule, you don’t realize that rule affects other people. Giving power to one individual and taking it from everyone else isn’t right.

“Under the current rules, if someone wants to build a home, they’ll still have to pass the proper tests and meet the requirements in order to move forward,” Commissioner Runyon said. “That process will remain in place regardless of the decision we make today.

If you can’t get a sanitary sewer system working on the property or adequate access to water, you can’t do it.”

Planning Director John Roberts said that property owners like Wilson would still be able to submit an application to rezone their property in order to further develop what they already own.

“As a commissioner, I was elected to be the voice of the people,” Commissioner Steve Kramer said following the hearing. “I’ve heard from the people today, and so I make the motion to deny this request.”

As acting chair, Commissioner Runyon agreed and the motion for denial was passed.

Thomas’ appeal for rezoning will now be passed on to the Land Use Board of Appeals, which will evaluate the commission’s decision.

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