Land parcel to stay in court’s hands

Posted on February 13th in News
 
Tract lies within private lands
 
by Samantha White
Burns Times-Herald
 
In a regular meeting of the Harney County Court (held Feb. 6) the court decided not to put a one-acre parcel of county-owned land, which it acquired due to tax foreclosure in 2006, up for auction. 
 
Discussion regarding the parcel began during a regular meeting of the court that was held Dec. 5 and continued during the court’s Dec. 19, Jan. 2 and Jan. 16 regular meetings. The discussion began after the court received an application from Bill Burstow, requesting that the court make the parcel available for sale by putting it up for auction.
 
One of the issues that the court had with auctioning the parcel is that it is completely surrounded by private land. In fact, Harney County Judge Steve Grasty said the adjacent landowner believed he owned the property until he hired a lawyer to determine his property lines. Coincidently, the adjacent landowner learned he doesn’t own the parcel at almost exactly the same time that the court received Burstow’s application. Further complicating the issue, the court discovered that the adjacent landowner owns the parcel’s water rights. 
 
During the Jan. 16 meeting, the court agreed to “put off” the decision for another two weeks in order to give the landowner’s legal counsel time to further investigate the parcels ownership. However, during the Feb. 6 meeting, Grasty said, “The landowner next to [the parcel] put an amazing amount of time into figuring it out, and he said, ‘I can’t in good faith say I have any claim to it.’”
 
Grasty then encouraged the court to make a decision regarding the parcel. “One choice would be to say, ‘No, we are not going to sell it,’ and return the application fee, and the other is to put it up for auction,” he said.
 
“I kind of think, because the surrounding landowner thought he owned it, we [should] put it up for auction,” Harney County Commissioner Pete Runnels said.
Runnels made a motion that the county put the parcel up for auction, but the motion died for lack of a second.
 
Harney County Commissioner Dan Nichols said the court should consider “what it truly costs to do things.” He said there may be a significant cost to the county to go through the auction process because the biding could result in an appeal. 
Grasty said putting the parcel up for auction could “create issues” because the county does not know who will buy it, and if someone were to appeal the purchase, “It could cost the county thousands.” He also said, “No matter who gets it, it’s going to create a problem.” 
 
“It goes against my grain. I don’t believe in government ownership, but I don’t believe in the county spending money,” Nichols said. He then motioned that the court keep the parcel and return Burstow’s application fee. Grasty seconded the motion.
 
Nichols said Burstow “did nothing wrong and everything right,” and the court agreed that Burstow followed the application process correctly.
 
Grasty said he “gave direction” to take the mention of any lands for sale off the county’s website. “We have land that can be made an application for, and if someone wants to come in and ask, that’s fine,” he said, “but I don’t want to make it look like we are promoting it.”
 
Grasty said he did not think the court should establish a criteria for making decisions regarding the sale of county-owned land. Instead, he suggested that the court review a list of the county’s newly acquired parcels each year and decide whether it is likely to keep or auction each of them. He said this would prevent individuals from having to pay a $250 application fee and wait multiple months to find out whether the court will auction a parcel. 
 
The court concluded its discussion and voted on the motion. Both Nichols and Grasty voted in favor, while Runnels was opposed. The motion passed.
 
•••  
During the public comment period, Herb Vloedman reiterated that he opposes the proposed paving of the nature trail. 
 
The proposed paving is part of a grant that the county and the cities of Burns and Hines applied for through the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) Statewide Transportation Improvement Program (STIP).
 
The proposed paving falls under STIP project name “Hines/Burns/Harney Co. Circle of Sidewalks/Ped Path.” If awarded, the grant would fund the paving of an eight-foot width of the nature trail, among other proposed projects.
 
However Runnels said, “It is a needle in a haystack that it is even going to come through the grant application process.”
 
ODOT District 14 Assistant District Manager Tom Davis later explained that Region 5 proposed more projects than there is funding to support. Region 5 consists of Harney, Grant, Malheur, Morrow, Umatilla, Wallowa, Union and Baker counties. Harney, Grant and Malheur counties belong to the South East Area Commission on Transportation (SEACT), and Morrow, Umatilla, Wallowa, Union and Baker counties belong to the North East Area Commission on Transportation (NEACT). Davis explained that the ACTs were formed to help communities “take a more active role” in deciding which projects are best for them. 
 
He reported that the SEACT met Jan. 28 to review a list of projects and determine a 150-percent cutoff line. He explained that any projects above the line will be considered for further review, and projects below the line probably will not. He added that approved projects will begin no sooner than 2016.
 
 “I was thinking the Hines/Burns/Harney Co. Circle of Sidewalks/Ped Path made it above the 150 percent cut line, but it is right there on the line,” Davis said.
 
“That doesn’t make it real hopeful,” Grasty said. He explained that even projects listed above the cutline will have to be narrowed down to 100 percent.
 
“There is only one pot of money for the whole region,” Davis said. However, he said projects could be grouped together to cut down on administrative costs, such as putting together contracts and filling out documents, that can incur when projects use federal funds. 
 
Grasty told Road Supervisor Eric Drushella, “It’s probably time again to start looking at projects five to six years out. This may change the way we go after projects. There may be a way that, if ODOT does a project that bumps up next to something we’re doing, we may be able to cut down on administration costs.”
 
“We could end up teaming up on projects to keep costs down and find ways to benefit everyone,” Davis added. “It’s really important to let everyone know about projects and keep them in the public eye. You may never know, some money may show up somewhere.”
 
One of the local projects that made it above the 150 percent cutline is “U.S. 20/395 Burns Pedestrian Improvements.” The project would include adding a sidewalk along U.S. Highway 20-395 in Burns and installing a bus shelter near Safeway. The grant was applied for by the city of Burns and ODOT. 
 
Runnels had questions regarding the necessity of the bus shelter. He said he has a conflict of interest with the issue because his business (Figaro’s Italian Pizza) sells tickets for Eastern Point shuttle (a daily bus service from Ontario to Bend with connections to Burns), but he noted that his business is already providing a shelter for Eastern Point riders. He added that if the shelter is being built for people using Harney County Dial-A-Ride (a service of Harney County Senior and Community Services Center) for transportation to and from Safeway, it is unlikely that riders would walk across the street from the store to wait at the shelter.
 
Nichols said grant money should be used for infrastructure like bridges and roads. He said projects like the proposed bus shelter are “niceties, but they are not necessary.”
 
Drushella added, “I want to maintain the structures that we already have, but the pools of money that are available are for enhancement or new services.”
 
Grasty said, “The sidewalks make sense, but the shelter might not. The court should deliver a message to the SEACT to scale back and don’t provide money for the shelter.”
 
Prior to meeting with Davis, the court appointed Burns City Manager Don Munkers as its representative to the SEACT, replacing Len Vohs. The court decided to invite Munkers to join the discussion, and he was contacted during the lunch break.
 
 When the meeting resumed, Munkers was in attendance to discuss the project, and he said the bus shelter portion of the project “was put in by the state.” He said the proposed shelter would be placed near where the East Point shuttle pulls onto the highway (near the edge of the Safeway parking lot where the East Point sign is).
 
Grasty asked, “What if the court put in a comment that they support the project, but not the shelter?”
 
Munkers said that would be fine with him. 
 
Nichols said, “We get roped into complying with certain funding streams.” He added that new projects “add layers to maintenance costs,” explaining that if the bus shelter gets vandalized, the city will have to pay to fix it. He said grants “aren’t free bucks.” 
 
Nichols said there is a shelter similar to the one being proposed near the courthouse that could possibly be relocated to the suggested area, and Grasty said this was not a bad idea. 
 
Grasty said he would like the SEACT and NEACT to work together more, and he would like to meet with Deschutes County’s ACT (Region 4) to discuss a possible pull-off for vehicles to turn into Chickahominy Reservoir in the west-bound, right-hand turning lane, which is a project that was suggested by Nichols. However, he said this project would have to be developed during the next STIP cycle.
 
The court concluded the discussion by returning to the proposed paving of the nature trail.
 
Nichols asked Munkers, “What kind of support is there for paving it?” 
 
Munkers replied, “I don’t think the general populous cares one way or the other,” but said he has had more people voice that they would not like it to be paved. 
 
Runnels said, “I don’t think it’s above the red [150 percent cutoff] line any way, so I don’t think we have to worry about it.”
 
The court thanked Munkers and Davis for attending and providing input.
 
••• 
The court approved Resolution 2013-03, re-establishing Harney District Emergency Medical Services (EMS) as the ambulance service provider for Harney County’s Ambulance Service Area (ASA). According to the resolution, the assignment shall be effective as of Jan. 1, 2013, and will run until Dec. 31, 2017.
 
The county’s ASA and ambulance provider were discussed at length during a public hearing held Wednesday, Jan. 16, at 2 p.m.
 
Grasty said the hearing is still open, and he suggested that the court resume the hearing during its next regular meeting to discuss the county’s “antiquated” service plan and AirLink’s proposal to offer county-wide air ambulance membership. 
 
Nichols said he thought the court needed to talk to Harney EMS Director Jeff Sceirine prior to the hearing to get more information. 
 
•••
The court discussed a funding request to maintain the Wildlife Services (WS) program in Harney County, which provides assistance with wildlife damage management. The program requested a $58,602.77 contribution from the county to help maintain the service of one, full-time WS employee. 
 
“This is a conversation we always have during the budget process,” Grasty said. “We have told them $50,000 is our limit. I don’t know what other counties are doing, but I would like to hear some input.” He said the majority of the funding now comes from the county.
 
Nichols said he liked Grasty’s idea of checking with other counties to see what they are contributing to their programs.
 
“I’m going to ask Wildlife Services to provide county-by-county info on what is paid. My understanding is that it’s a wide-range.”
 
“And we are on the upper end,” Runnels said.
 
“There are people that absolutely utilize this service and are very appreciative of it,” Nichols said. “This service needs to continue, but we need to weigh the costs.”
 
••• 
In other business, the court:
 
• reviewed the Department of Administrative Services notification regarding Title I funds received by Harney County through the Investment Pool from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Forest Service; 
 
• requested that Runnels sign the Sage Library System Memorandum of Understanding on behalf of the court. Runnels explained that signing the memorandum will keep the system, which is operated by Eastern Oregon University, in place;
 
 • reviewed the upcoming legislative schedule;
 
• discussed appointing a budget board member. The court decided to invite each of the five people who submitted a letter of interest to have individual conversations with the court Feb. 20;
 
• discussed hiring a water master, as the position is currently vacant. 
 
The next county court meeting will be held Wednesday, Feb. 20, at 10 a.m. in Judge Grasty’s office at the courthouse. 
 
 
 


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