The Wallowa County Planning Commission publicly revealed that it could benefit from a little planning of its own during its monthly meeting on March 26.
The meeting appeared to have little direction. On the agenda was the vote to ratify the reasoning behind the planning commission’s Feb. 26 denial of the Joseph Branch Trail Consortium’s conditional land use permit for a trail accompanying along the old rail line.
As the hearing commenced, Commission Chair Ramona Phillips said she would do something “a little unusual.” Phillips proceeded with a lengthy statement that ultimately urged the commission either to disapprove the prior findings, table or reopen the record of the prior findings to allow more testimony.
Phillips, who has admitted to owning and managing land next to the tracks, in an unchecked monologue said her concerns lay not with what was included in the findings, but rather what was not included.
After listing a variety of concerns from the prospective of some adjacent land owners in a somewhat unorthodox way of testifying for the record, Phillips expressed concern over the lack of legal counsel as well.
According to the chairperson, Planning Director Franz Goeble advised Phillips that county attorney, Paige Sully, would recuse herself from the proceedings as she was a former member of the Joseph Branch Trail Consortium. Nevertheless, the meeting proceeded without counsel.
Phillips continued to speak to questions of liability issues on hunters or trail users with hunting season on private property as well as interactions with livestock.
The chairperson also compared the prospect of the trail to problems with wolves as far as adversely affecting ranching practices and said that the culture of agriculture is what brings visitors to Wallowa County. “We need to protect what makes us unique, and that’s the culture of agriculture, and that’s farming and ranching,” she said.
Phillips added that she wasn’t sure if the commission should have voted without legal counsel. With no direction from former planning department head, Harold Black, an attorney, or Goebel, Phillips said that confusion ensued about whether the record from that meeting was left open for further testimony, even though the commission did in fact opt to voted to deny the JBTC’s application at the end of the hearing.
Phillips said she was concerned the very night of the meeting and the next day on whether the committee should have taken a vote because she believed the vote negated the applicants’ right to submit new information.
Changing tunes on the notion that everyone should be heard, “I should have disallowed most of the testimony in favor (of the trail),” Phillips said. She noted what she called the redundancy of much of the pro-trail letters and testimony as it cited health benefits. Those in attendance at the February meeting can attest that anyone who wanted to testify on either side was given the opportunity.
Phillips wrapped up suggesting that she wasn’t sure if the commission should vote to disprove the previous month’s findings and offered other commission members a chance to comment; only after again adding that she wasn’t sure if the commission should have voted without legal counsel in February.
Once open for comment, confusion ensued as commission members talked over one another more than a few times as each seemed to try to fully understand and clarify what procedurally was in front of them.
One commission member stated that perhaps the record should be open because these decisions should be determined by facts. It’s unclear whether the suggestion was that the Feb. 26 decision was not factually based or whether the commission voted prematurely while knowing there were more facts to be heard. The commission voted in February regardless of the interpretation.
A commission member reminded Phillips that the group was also examining the trail conditional use permit, not just EFU zoning itself. Phillips replied she was talking about people testifying about health benefits, not land use.
Commission member Georgene Henson pointed out the concern that if the record were left open for additional comments, the trail groups would have no time to exercise its legal right appeal the February 26 decision.
Gay Fregulia, commission member, echoed Phillips and said that she too was confused about the further testimony and whether the record was left open after the vote.
Commission member Kim Tippet made a motion to accept the commission findings of the previous month without reopening the record, which member Jim Nave seconded.
Phillips again said that without legal counsel present, she wasn’t sure if it was fair to leave out the three people who requested the record remain open. However, Rob DeSpain reminded everyone a motion was on the floor, and the commission voted.
It passed 5-2 with Phillips and Fregulia in the minority voting against the motion.
The resulting vote accepted the reasoning behind the Feb. 26 denial, thus allowing the JBTC to appeal to the Wallowa County Commissioners.