By Samantha White
In a meeting of the Harney County Court held Wednesday, Dec. 5, the court reviewed an application by Bill Burstow to purchase county-owned land.
Harney County Judge Steve Grasty said that the one-acre parcel, which was acquired by the county in 2006 due to tax foreclosure, is completely surrounded by privately owned land.
“Every time these come up, I get nervous because of the issues it can create with surrounding landowners,” Grasty said.
County Planning Director Brandon McMullen said records describing the parcel reference structures that no longer exist. He said he believes that the land may have been part of the city of Denio at one time, as Denio used to be a larger city.
McMullen said, if purchased by a private landowner, “The land’s only use, aside from agriculture, would be potentially a dwelling.”
If used for agriculture, McMullen said the parcel’s soil would rank between a 1 and a 3 if the land is irrigated, and a 6 if it is not. He explained that farmable land is ranked on a numeric scale, and land with soil ranked between 1 and 3 is considered high-value farm land.
Noting the parcel’s proximity to Denio Creek, Grasty said the land may be advantageous as a water source.
“It may have some water rights,” he said.
The parcel is also immediately adjacent to County Road 201 (the Fields Denio Road). Road Supervisor Eric Drushella said that the parcel’s proximity to a paved road may make it a good location for public use as an aggregate or stockpile site. “It is a nice location,” he said. “It’s right off the road. I need to take a look at it.”
Grasty said he believes that, a few years ago, the county made a list of the land that it owns and is probably not going to sell. He asked McMullen to locate the list and review all of the parcels that are on it.
“I think it would be helpful for people to know right up front if there is a potential for public use,” Grasty said, explaining that it is unlikely that the county will sell land that can be used for public purposes.
Grasty said that Burstow had to pay a fee when he applied to purchase the parcel.
“My take is that we say no and refund the application fee,” Grasty said.
“If [the parcel] appears to be for sale to the buyer, I don’t think that it’s right to pull it out from under [him],” County Commissioner Pete Runnels said.
“This is part of the reason why I think we should refund the application fee,” Grasty said.
Grasty, Runnels, Drushella and County Commissioner Dan Nichols decided that they will take a trip to view the parcel before making any decisions about selling it. Grasty said he would also like the court to seek more information about the parcel by checking its records.
Grasty said the court will decide on the matter during its next meeting, and suggested that Burstow be invited to attend the meeting.
Grasty said the county has been working with the Sage Grouse Conservation Partnership (SageCon) to develop an approach to sage grouse protection.
SageCon is an Oregon Solutions Project. According to its website, Oregon Solutions’ mission is to “develop sustainable solutions to community-based problems that support economic, environmental and community objectives and are built through the collaborative efforts of businesses, government and non-profit organizations.” Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber is the chair of the Oregon Solutions Steering Committee.
Oregon Solutions’ website states that SageCon “will work to pull together an all-lands, all-threats approach to sage grouse conservation to both address USFWS’s [United States Fish and Wildlife Service] sage grouse listing decision in 2015 and support community sustainability in Central and Eastern Oregon into the future.” These efforts are in anticipation of the USFWS’s review of the sage grouse’s status under the federal Endangered Species Act.
The court and Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Tom Sharp had a lengthy discussion regarding the efforts by Harney County and the state to prevent the listing of the sage grouse in Oregon.
Grasty said Harney County is being viewed as the model for how counties with sage grouse populations are approaching the issue.
“I keep sending the message: Don’t be talking about environmental stuff without talking about community stuff,” Grasty said. “It’s a great effort, and I will tell you that the state is behind it,” he added, “but we need to make it more palatable by addressing local issues.”
The court also discussed some newly proposed legislative language regarding transmission lines.
Grasty explained that the proposed language is still in the conceptual phase and that a bill has not been created.
“I don’t think we have enough information to support it,” Grasty said, regarding the proposed language. “Until we have a lot more information, we are not in support of it,” he elaborated.
Nichols noted that he does not have a conflict of interest regarding this issue.
Upon recommendation from Sharp, the court decided to establish a partnership with Oregon Partnership for Disaster Resilience (OPDR) at the University of Oregon to update the county’s Natural Hazard Mitigation Plan (NHMP).
The plan forms the foundation for a long-term strategy for reducing disaster losses and creates a framework for decision making to reduce damages to lives, property and the economy from future disasters.
The county’s NHMP must be maintained and updated every five years, or the county could lose federal funding for pre-disaster mitigation projects.
The OPDR will facilitate meetings, which will be held with the NHMP steering committee. The steering committee is expected to include representatives from multiple agencies and local utility services. A project kick-off meeting is scheduled for January, and steering committee work sessions will be held in February and March. The public will be given an opportunity to submit comments and provide input regarding the updates.
The updated plan must be submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for review and approval by April 1, 2013. If approved by FEMA, local jurisdictions, including Harney County and the cities of Burns and Hines, will adopt the plan by May 31, 2013.
Grasty said that two big issues facing the steering committee are Harney Electric’s ongoing efforts to put in power lines and maintenance of the Silvies River Channel.
Sharp said, “This is our opportunity to get funding.”
Sharp explained in the county court meeting held Nov. 7 that any ongoing projects need to be written into the updated plan in order to ensure that their funding is safe and secure.
Sharp also informed the court that collaboration among Eastern Oregon fire chiefs, fire defense boards and county emergency management continues to encourage the streamlined conflagration order process with the State Fire Marshal Office for wildland fire assistance.
“This is a big deal,” Sharp said. “There needs to be a faster, quicker process for obtaining assistance for wildfires.”
Sharp explained that, last summer, a wildfire in Harney County burned 100,000 acres in one day.
“Time is critical,” Sharp said, regarding response to wildfires.
Nichols asked, “What is the likelihood of making progress?”
Sharp replied, “The state fire marshal recognizes that Eastern Oregon has the greatest potential for wildfires but says value loss is minimal.”
Sharp said that he disagrees with the marshal’s assessment of the region’s potential for value loss, stating that a loss of natural resources translates into a major economic loss for the region. He added that it may take generations to restore these resources. He also said that restoration efforts, including seeding and fencing, are very costly. “There is a true value loss in addition to the ongoing economic loss,” he said.
Sharp added that the Miller Homestead and Long Draw wildfires resulted in the loss of 100,000-250,000 acres of core sage grouse habitat.
Grasty expressed concern that the fire marshal will only consider structure damage when determining value loss.
The court recognized the work of County Clerk Maria Iturriaga who will be retiring at the end of her term.
“Your commitment is amazing to the people of the community and to us,” Grasty said.
“It has been quite a ride,” Iturriaga said regarding her work experience. “It is amazing for a little girl to come from the ‘Old Country’ and be county clerk. It has been an enjoyable time.”
“People don’t know what it takes to be a county official in this or any county,” Nichols added, thanking Iturriaga for her work in record-keeping and promoting voting in Harney County.
Runnels also thanked Iturriaga for all of her help.
In other business, the court:
• decided to submit a request to the Association of Oregon Counties (AOC) for Harney County representation on the AOC Legislative Committee. The court decided to request that Grasty be that representative;
• heard a report from Dana Ketcher, an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer, regarding an arsenic in drinking water project that she is currently working on with the Harney County Health Department;
• was addressed by Barbara Cannady during the public comment period regarding the outcome of a meeting held Nov. 14 to discuss Eastern Oregon Academy (EOA). Grasty informed Cannady that the meeting was called by the Oregon Youth Authority and Oregon’s Department of Human Services, and he was invited to attend it. Runnels also commented that he attended the meeting as an invited participant. Grasty said that any recording requirements would have been the responsibility of the agencies that called the meeting, and he suggested that Cannady contact those agencies for more information regarding the meeting;
• learned that the Harney County Health Department has flu shots available every Tuesday, and walk-ins are welcome;
• reviewed Notices of Water Use Requests from Oregon Water Resources Department and did not express objections to any of the requests.
The next county court meeting will be held Wednesday, Dec. 19, at 10 a.m. in Judge Grasty’s office at the courthouse.