Not too far away from Spencer Creek Valley, there
are other quiet valleys greened by forested hilly watersheds where people
are trying to preserve a rural way of life and an unique relationship to the land.
Subsistence gardening and timber cutting, living with the seasons, the ebb and flow
of the river and rains, occasional trips to town, neighbors get to know each other.
Many old timers are gone, their old homesteads broken up but the effort to be thoughtful
stewards and watchdogs continues. As we experience an expanding population there
is growing pressure on use of land: loss of habitat and trees, falling water tables
for wells, suddenly crowded schools, fast traffic on gravel roads, this is country,
not city nor suburban. Land use is survival for country people. Even as we all suffer
and grumble about the bureaucracy of land use planning, we expect our public regulatory
agencies (Lane County, Oregon, in this case) to uphold the goals, guidelines and
state laws of land use planning - to do the right things. Even though we all dislike
dealing with the County most people out here support the ideals of land use planning.
So why is there a growing gap between the ideals and the practice of local land use
There are many dedicated public employees working hard to uphold the ideals of
the Lane County's land use planning system. But what do you do when the system has
faulty wiring? Fence theater meets real estate development on Fire Road. -Editor
Battle for Fire Road
By Norm Maxwell
The 'hood at the end of Fire Road. Taken from the top of a recent clear cut.
That's our place with the metal shop & the red pickup truck.
Several years ago a developer bought the 25
acre remains of the original farm at the end of Fire Road near Lorane, Oregon. I
paid little attention to the fact until somebody who lived next to the place mentioned
to me that a developer had applied to the Land Management Division (LMD) of Lane
County to cut the original farm house off of the 25 acre spread on two acres in preparation
of changing the zoning. The end of Fire Road is zoned as Rural Residential 10 acres
so I had a difficult time believing this story. I have worked for a private surveyor
and currently have a job that keeps me in touch with boundary lines and land use
issues. I discounted what the neighbor told me. I discovered later that Lane County's
LMD had sent notice of this proposed action to all people living within 300 feet
of the developer's property. Since I lived 325 feet away, I had not been noticed.
I didn't have long until the hearing for this "lot line adjustment" so
I sent a letter of protest to the LMD and let it go at that. My former surveyor boss
had told me that changing zoning was "like trying to scratch your ass with your
elbow." I believed him.
Then the 12 acre place across from my west fence went up for sale and the developer
quickly bought it. Both of his properties adjoined and the Siuslaw River runs through
them. The majority of the developer's holdings are in the floodplain. I assumed that
the county would not allow houses to be built in the floodplain but I was mistaken.
With enough money, you can build a house on concrete stilts or import a ten foot
deep rock footing to build on.
Soon after this I found out that the developer had cut off the new mobile home on
2 acres from the original 12 with another phony baloney "lot line adjustment"
and was attempting to sell it. There was no notice from Lane County on this action
and when I attempted to protest this questionable action, I was told by LMD this
was a "preliminary" land use decision and could not be challenged until
the first activity requiring a permit.
This is the incredible invisible road that allegedly divide's the developer's land
into two units. - Norm
I promptly parked a junk car up against the fence where it could be appreciated by
anyone looking at the mobile home. For good measure I spray painted GO BACK TO CAL
in bright orange on the side of the old Dart facing west and left the hood up. I
added a few major appliances and beer cans filled with water so they'd stay put.
My wife drew the line at the crude HITLER LIVES sign I sprayed on a piece of sheet
Still, I was able to influence the value of the developer's property. I would roll
a friend's non-running chopper out of my shop and park it so it looked just ridden.
I would "call for fire" when I saw prospective buyers around the place
and a neighbor would open up into the hillside behind his house with his defense
rifle. I would yell "SHUT UP, YOU FAT BITCH, OR I'LL BEAT YOU SOME MORE!"
and stand on the back porch in my underwear with a jumbo sized beer can filled with
water. It took a while but the developer did finally sell the place. I compared notes
with the young couple who bought it and they felt they had gotten quite a deal.
The one time I talked to the developer over the back fence he made reference to my
junk collection on the perimeter and told me that he "understood how I must
feel." I didn't argue. When he further informed me that he was going to develop
my 'hood, and there wasn't anything anybody could do about it, I terminated the conversation
with "I shall resist." and walked away. I retained a lawyer shortly after
this. When initially briefing her on the situation at the end of Fire Road, I was
pleased to hear her say "they can't do that," after every other action
I described. I was very fortunate to have blundered into this particular attorney.
I am the chief union steward at my place of employment and have some experience with
battling bureaucracy. The vanity plate on my truck reads X-TEMP in honor of my first
major victory where I had broken the "temp barrier" after 20 months and
a week long visit from the Inspector General. While this was going on, my temporary
appointment sadly ran out and I found myself working for a private surveyor for a
year until suddenly invited to return to work the next Monday.
I am used to fighting alone and winning so am proud of myself for recognizing that
I was in over my head on this one. The lawyer quickly found that nothing done to
date at the end of Fire Road could be challenged until the re-zoning hearing. Lane
County maintained that all these actions were "preliminary" land use decisions
and couldn't be challenged until the first permit action was applied for. Re-zoning
fills that bill.
Eventually, after a few false starts, the re-zoning hearing took place the end of
this January. The developer took his family to Hawaii and we went to Florida. The
hearings official found in my favor after six weeks or more of deliberation. He decided
that Oregon land use law supersedes Lane County policies. State law doesn't recognize
migrating tax lots and has a much more limited concept of lot line adjustments and
ancient road easements dividing one tax lot into two by its mere presence. The hearings
official found the two 2 acre tax lots with the original homes on them to be illegal.
One of the lots is buried under at least three levels of illegality but I shan't
bore you. Life would sure be a lot simpler if I had been allowed to challenge the
process before the developer sold the lots.
So now we have two families living on illegal tax lots that never should have been
sold in the first place. What their title companies were doing other than pocketing
their fees is anybody's guess. The developer has invested a lot of time and money
into this mess. It wasn't surprising when he appealed the hearings official's decision.
When Kent Howe, the head of the Land Mngt Div, appealed the decision on behalf of
Lane County, it was a surprise.
I was under the impression that Lane County was providing an impartial forum for
the resolution of this dispute. I didn't realize that LC had the privilege of being
both judge AND litigant. Live and learn. I began to worry at this point. I was soundly
trouncing the developer despite his money and influence broker lawyer. But now the
developer is tag teamed with LC to whom money is no object at all, not to mention
the fact that the hearings official is a LC employee.
I needed media to offset the advantages of the opposing forces. I e-mailed Lance
Robertson, a reporter for the Eugene Register-Guard, the basics of the story. He
ignored me at first but I piqued his interest with the update that Kent Howe had
appealed LC's own decision. This doesn't happen every day. Eventually, Lance came
out and brought a photographer who took photos of the flood plain and me and Mona
the dog who wandered around the area with us. The story made the headlines on May
Day. I felt I had broken out of the box of silence. I backed it up with a letter
to the editor that gave LC a few right crosses and went ahead and threw in a few
left jabs at Californians for good measure. I got a spate of "fan" mail
in the letters to the editor column attacking me as a Caliphobe. Nobody cared to
respond to LC being in bed with a developer. I guess this was no news.
We are awaiting the hearings official's "reconsidered" decision. The developer
is going to be out a lot of money and will sue Lane County as LC's Land Management
Division blessed what he did without verifying its legality. Lane County wants very
badly for me to dry up and blow away but that just isn't likely to happen.
Update August 2000:
The hearing officer who reconsidered the actions of Lane County has overturned his
own earlier decision and found in favor of the developer 's and Lane County's actions,
contrary to state land use planning regulations. Is there an inherent conflict of
interest when a County hearings official is employed by one of the major parties?
Who doesn't like to eat or pay for housing? Stay tuned for the next exciting chapter
in the sage, Battle for Fire Road. - Editor
Update September 2000:
On the Fire Road citizen's appeal route, the Lane County Board of Commissioners
put the Fire Road case on the agenda and agreed to send it directly to the Sate of
Oregon's Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) rather than review it themselves. This
is very good news for the grassroots rural preservation movement. The case will
be measured as it should be by the prevailing state laws, not by local politics and
influence. - Editor