Farm-dwelling application approved
By Randy Parks
In the aftermath of the Miller Homestead Fire, representatives from several agencies and the governor’s office attended the Harney County Court meeting on Wednesday, July 18, to discuss the fire suppression activities and the options available to help those affected by the blaze.
Judge Steve Grasty noted that the maps showed the fire more than doubled in one day, growing from about 68,000 acres to more than 158,000 on July 12, and the firefighters “did a commendable job” of battling the blaze.
Grasty thanked the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for opening their gates to allow cattle into the fields to escape harm, and he complimented the county road department for their help, including using a caterpillar to “ring” power poles.
On Tuesday, July 17, Governor John Kitzhaber declared a state of emergency in both Harney and Malheur counties to expedite assistance and Grasty added that on July 12, Harney County was designated as a primary natural disaster area regarding drought by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. The court then agreed to sign a declaration of local disaster and state of emergency in the county to provide assistance and resources for both the immediate and longer terms of the people, land and wildlife.
Cameron Smith from the governor’s office said the fire was one of the largest in state history, it burned with different dynamics than a forest fire and there was heavy dependence on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and rangeland fire units to fight the fire. “It was citizens helping citizens,” Smith said.
Smith stated the focus now turns to the agricultural and economic concerns, including agencies working together for water, land, fences, livestock and people’s needs. “There is a significant cost to the counties, but I don’t think it meets FEMA (Federal Emergency management Agency) requirements,” Smith said. “But there are other avenues and immediate disaster relief resources. You just have to get all the right players in.”
Grasty said the county lost three bridges that were not insured and by by one estimate, up to 250 miles of fence suffered damage.
Charles Newhouse with the Farm Service Agency explained some programs available to ranchers for assistance including the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP). He added that if the Farm Bill, currently in Congress, is passed, it would open up payment for loss of pasture and livestock.
There was some discussion on NAP (Non-Insured Assistance Program) or pasture insurance, and Newhouse said if ranchers purchase NAP for next year, they may qualify for payments for loss of pasture from the fire.
Commissioner Dan Nichols was concerned that these programs were good for the longer term, but the reality of the situation is that the ranchers need help keeping their businesses going now. “These guys are in big trouble with non-use of pastures for two or three years,” Nichols said. “And they’ve got to get fencing back.”
Grasty then suggested that maybe someone could get a small business going to help build fences and the county could possibly help that enterprise with economic development funds.
In regards to helping ranchers now, Grasty stated that about five or six ranchers got hit the hardest and they are already out there working to stay afloat. “They’re way ahead of us,” Grasty said. “They don’t want government hand-outs, so how do we help and not be in their way?”
Nichols proposed setting up some sort of program to generate interest in providing forage and/or pasture for cattle. They agreed that if local hay producers or landowners would be interested in getting involved, they could contact the county court.
Jeff Rose of the BLM reminded those in attendance that the fire season is about a month ahead of schedule. “We’ve got a long way to go,” he said.
At 2 p.m., the county court held a public hearing in the matter of a farm-dwelling application by Charley Otley that was remanded by the Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA).
Before the hearing began, Commissioner Pete Runnels recused himself and Judge Grasty stated that the hearing would be limited to just two topics, those being the reasons why the application resulted in a remand by LUBA.
Tia Lewis, representing Diamond Valley Ranch Inc., stated the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) had challenged the court’s earlier decision to approve a “Farm Dwelling” on a 480-acre parcel of land owned by Diamond Valley Ranch Inc.
The two issues that needed to be reviewed were the size of the land tract and defining the operation as “commercial scale.”
Nichols and Grasty agreed that the acreage, 11 tax lots comprising 3,400.13 acres, met the requirements and the operation did meet the “commercial scale requirements.” As a result of their deliberations, the court voted 2-0 to re-affirm the decision made on Oct. 5, 2011, at the original hearing to approve the application.
In other business:
• the court appointed Charles Cagle, Jim Withee, Herb Vloedman and Judge Grasty to the Harney County Forestland-Urban Interface Classification Committee;
• the court reviewed an Environmental Assessment and unsigned Finding of No Significant Impact from the BLM regarding North American Eagle Inc.’s proposal to conduct speed testing on the Alvord Desert. The testing involves a vehicle that could reach or exceed 600 mph;
• the court approved Ordinance No. 2012-70 in the matter of amending the Harney County Zoning Ordinance Sections 9.030 and 9.040 to update appeal procedures. Grasty explained the amendments provide different options for the court in the appeals process and should expedite the process as well;
• the court approved Ordinance No. 2012-71, which will ask voters to decide if the commissioner positions should become non-partisan by the May 2014 primary election;
• the court voted to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Eastern Oregon Coordinated Care Organization (CCO) for public mental health care and services. Chris Siegner of Symmetry Care said the goal is to provide consistent services under the CCO. “We are a community health program and want to remain that way,” he said;
• Road Supervisor Eric Drushella reported they were working on the airport road, grinding and re-paving, and it would be closed for a little more than a week.
The next county court meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday, Aug. 1, at the courthouse.