Rails to trails in Wallowa County

The Wallowa County, Ore., Planning Commission has denied the Joseph Branch Trail Consortium’s application for a conditional use permit to develop a trail along the railroad tracks between Joseph and Enterprise.

The Wallowa County Planning Commission denied an application requesting a conditional use permit for a non-motorized community trail between Joseph and Enterprise at its Feb. 26 meeting. The application was made by the Joseph Branch Trail Consortium, a public benefit non-profit that originated in 2014.

Ahead of testimony by dozens of Wallowa County citizens for and against the application, Franz Goebel, the county Planning Director, recommended the planning commission approve the conditional use permit for the proposed 10-foot wide trail stretching from the Joseph Rodeo Grounds to the Marr Pond Wildlife Area on the edge of Enterprise.

As part of its decision, the planning commission considered both written and oral testimony from impassioned advocates on both sides of this controversial issue. Prior to the meeting, approximately 124 letters were sent in support of the trail, and 79 letters against.

However, the planning commission also considered various county ordinances, some of which emphasize the protection of farm and ranch land in the county.

In the most general sense, proponents urge that the community trail will improve the health and quality of life of local residents, strengthen the community and stimulate the local economy. On the other hand, opponents voiced concern over the collateral damage that could result for private property owners, ranchers and farmers whose land borders the current railway due to increased human and animal presence on the railway.

Garrett Stephenson, representing the Joseph Branch Trail Consortium, said the application he prepared demonstrates how the trail would neither force a significant change on the surrounding land, dedicated to farm and forest practices, nor create a significant increase to the cost of farming — criteria required by state law.

The 100-page application addressed several specific concerns as well, raised in a series of public forums and private meetings with landowners, such as privacy, crime, litter, dog-livestock interaction, trespass, liability and lower property values.

“We did a ton of research into every trail in the entire nation and how people live with them,” Stephenson said.

Building a trail for horseback riding, bicycling, running and walking along the 63-mile Joseph Branch Railroad from Elgin to Joseph has been a desire of many residents since Union and Wallowa counties purchased the line nearly 20 years ago.

In 2014 Oregon Parks and Recreation teamed up with Eastern Oregon University to develop a feasibility study. When it was completed, the Wallowa Union Railroad Authority, owner of the line, gave the Trail Consortium permission to pursue funding to build the trail in segments. The six miles from Joseph to Enterprise was identified as one of the least expensive areas in which to build and a stretch that would likely be heavily used.

Dr. Ken Rose, a surgeon at Wallowa Memorial Hospital, spoke on behalf of the medical community in support of the trail at the public hearing at Cloverleaf Hall. He said exercise helps prevent disease and early mortality.

“We have a lot of members of the community with high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and obesity,” Rose said. “I think it is a great idea to put this underutilized facility into use.”

A local botanist and avid skier, Jerry Hustafa said he grew up along a similar trail that connects an urban area to Lake Michigan, winding through the small towns in between.

“I know the trail is going to change a sense of privacy and we are asking a portion of the community to accept that change — the rest (of the concerns) can be mitigated,” Hustafa said.

David Schmidt, owner of Integrated Biomass Resources, a small mill in the lower Wallowa Valley bordering the railroad, said he sees anglers use the corridor to access fishing holes and people who rent pedal powered rail riders every day during the summer.

“Our experiences have been great,” Schmidt said. “As for the concerns from friends who oppose the trail because of a loss of privacy, I tell them we own a mill with 25 employees and lots of equipment and no one stops and looks at what we are doing.”

It was 10 p.m. by the time the supporters had finished their arguments and the opposition lined up at the podium.

Opponents voiced an array of concerns, from the logistics and necessity of the trail itself to property rights and the preservation of the farming and ranching economy. Concerns over the spread of weeds into pastures and the potential for fires from cigarettes or other flammable activity were also mentioned.

Josh Hulse of Wallowa said he owns land adjacent to the railroad. He worried the trail would eventually be extended down to his property at some point in the future.

“The main aspect of that property is privacy,” Hulse said.

Others, including Velda Bales, argued that dogs loose without leashes could be a nuisance for landowners.

Bales said she lives near the railroad outside Enterprise.

“We don’t want dogs running loose and pooping everywhere and I don’t want to look out my window and see an outhouse or someone relieving themselves,” Bales said.

Resident Angie Nash suggested the notion that prohibiting horses from the trail might mitigate some concerns, noting the potentially precarious combination of dogs, children and horses.

Ultimately, the commission voted 5-1 to deny the application shortly before midnight.

Penny Arentsen, president of the Trail Consortium, said her board of directors will decide whether to appeal the commission’s decision when the planning director releases his findings March 26.

Editor Christian Ambroson contributed to the substance of this article

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