The Joseph City Council’s March 7 meeting saw fireworks fly as it unanimously voted to deny a housing variance to Douglas Saturno, a Walla Walla resident who owns property in Joseph and other parts of Wallowa County. Mayor Teresa Sajonia announced that Saturno sought a variance permit for the north side of his property at 802 Engleside Ave to allow for placement of a rental unit on the parcel, which already features a home.
Saturno’s attorney, Rahn Hostetter, first addressed the matter. He said that the Saturnos purchased the property in 2017 and worked with the city and Wallowa Associates to create a partition. The city granted the application under former mayor, Dennis Sands. Hostetter said the area in question was difficult to work with as it didn’t face a street and it wasn’t clear what constituted the front and back of the parcel.
According to Hostetter, during the placement of the housing unit, a 22-foot setback was violated. The attorney called the unit a “construction,” although it is a triple-wide mobile home. He did say the foundation that was poured also did not comply with the setback, but it wasn’t intentional and he apologized. He added that because the foundation was already poured, and because it wasn’t clear what constituted the front or back, he hoped the council would allow the variance from the 22-foot setback.
Bruce Ginsel, Saturno’s property manager, said that a previous employee had done much of the permit work. He added that the foundation was poured shortly after he was hired and he hadn’t seen the plans and was unaware of any setback issues. He assumed the contractor was aware of any setback requirements, although the contractor admitted he hadn’t seen the plans either, so he poured the foundation to line up with an existing home.
Ginsel added that when the city came out to the site for a sewer and water question, it was noted that the setback was not compliant with the permit, which was why the variance was requested. He also said rectifying the problem would be a burden to the Saturnos, and he couldn’t see where it was harming anyone.
“We’re just hoping we can get this variance and move forward,” Ginsel said.
An employee of Lowell Lewis, the contractor, also testified that Lewis said he asked then city recorder, Sandra Patterson for the zone permit, and she said she didn’t have it. The employee said that Lewis staked out the foundation where it made the most sense to him and the ranch manager previous to Ginsel had approved it.
One audience member from Enterprise spoke in favor of the variance, saying the Saturnos were trying to provide valuable renting units in the city.
Fierce public opposition was then aired by seven residents in the area. Complaints ranged from concern that the Saturno parties hadn’t acted in good faith from the start, the smell of the mobile home and accusations that on-site workers had willfully driven equipment over and damaged adjacent properties and even attempted to illegally tap into a neighbor’s sewer line, which resulted in filing an incident report and the county issuing a cease and desist order. Also concerning for opponents of the variance was the restricted access for Emergency Services.
Monte Zollman, who lives next door, wondered why the contractor didn’t bother to find out the setbacks before he poured the foundation. He also said the original permit designates a new home and that the mobile home was clearly used and in poor a condition. He added that he knew of several land use laws that were broken and had provided explanations and photos to the city.
More than one person noted that the city does not allow for variances if the hardship is self-imposed. Also that the mobile home dimensions are larger than those applied for on the permit. Mayor Sajonia also read a number of letters in opposition.
Hostetter had nothing to add during the opportunity for rebuttal but Ginsel said that he wasn’t convinced that fire truck access was impeded and that the sewer line incident wasn’t germane to the hearing. He added that the mobile home would get remodeled. Lewis’s employee said the neighbor’s sewer wasn’t broken and the fire truck access was legal on the property.
Mayor Sajonia said that she noted the zoning permit cited a new home, which the present mobile home was not. Also that the home did not match the square footage listed on the permit and the actual size of the lot also differed from the permit.
Addressing the applicants, Mayor Sajonia said, “this is a blatant question here. Is this an ‘ask for forgiveness’ issue? It does come across this way.”
Ginsel said they were asking for forgiveness, but it wasn’t pre-planned. He said he wasn’t aware of the setback issue and that Saturno wasn’t previously aware of the foundation problem.
“It happened,” he said. “We found out it was wrong, and we can’t change it.”
In response to a question from Pearl Sturm about the sewer line incident, city recorder Belinda Buswell testified that city worker Dennis Welch went to investigate after a complaint. He found that the contractor on site had dug a trench from the mobile home to the Zollman property and had damaged the line. Buswell went out to the site and took pictures around the property and asked how the home was put there as it did not meet setback requirements. She returned to the office to file an incident report. She also mentioned that while talking to Ginsel of the incident, she noted that the Saturnos had not filed paperwork to access sewer and water hookups.
“So why are you digging toward any sewer without having any paperwork?,” she asked. “Would you please present it to me?”
Ginsel only possessed the zoning permit.
The applicants failed to convince the mayor or the rest of the council as to the purity of their motives. After reading the requirements to issue a variance, the council wasted no time in shooting down the variance by unanimous vote.
In other council news:
Despite having received the most write-in votes in the November 2018 election for a council seat position, Joseph resident Garrick Asplund didn’t receive a single vote from council members for either of two open seats on the council. The body voted unanimously to place Kathy Zacharias and Lisa Collier to the seats. Collier is the daughter-in-law of council member Tanya Collier.
The council voted unanimously to spend about $80,000 to purchase a software program to consolidate utility billing. The program also does payroll, direct deposit, legal consulting and will consolidate the city’s entire budget. The cost includes training for city employees.
The council members also unanimously approved an OLCC license for “The Gold Room,” a restaurant to be located at 100 N. Main St.
Sajonia also introduced newly hired city administrator, Larry Braden.