Proposed C zone near springs clears a hurdle

<p>Rich Rautenstrauch/Chieftain      Enterprise's springs outside of Joseph enjoy certain protections under Wallowa County law against specific development proposals that risk the springs' contamination.</p>

A landowner’s push to commercially rezone 32 acres near Enterprise’s drinking water springs gained ground last week with county planners, who are recommending the application’s approval.

On a 4-1 vote Nov. 27, the Wallowa County Planning Commission endorsed S&V Properties’ proposal, which seeks to change the land’s designation from Recreation Residential (R-2) to Rural Commercial (R/C). The acreage is located next to the Joseph Airport and within Enterprise Watershed Area boundaries.

Earlier in November, the Enterprise City Council voted unanimously to oppose the proposal. Like the county planning commission’s action last week, however, the city council’s decision holds no force, serving as only an advisory measure to the Wallowa County Board of Commissioners (BOC). The BOC isn’t expected to determine the rezoning application’s fate until February, at earliest.

Five county planning board members – chair Ken Wick, vice-chair Benjamin Curry, Ramona Phillips, Sterling Shetler and Scott Lathrop – listened to several witnesses and to four letters which were read into the record during last Tuesday’s public hearing at the courthouse. Board members Ron Lathrop and Georgene Henson were absent.

The application’s opponents argued against a change to allow any commercial development so close to the springs. Wrote Enterprise resident Robert Taylor to Chairman Wick, “One of the criteria you and the other Commissioners are compelled to evaluate in making your decision on this rezoning request is whether or not it ‘...is in the public interest and serves the purpose and intent of the local planning process.’ Can commercial development of 25 acres of land at the risk of contaminating water for nearly one-third of the county’s population be in the public interest?”

Marc Stauffer, chair of Enterprise’s planning commission, testified in person against the proposal. He said the city planners had examined the matter in depth. “This has taken a lot of our time,” he said, including three special meetings and a field trip to the springs. He said the risk question was valid to consider. “As a planning commissioner, part of my duty is to look at potentials.” The proposed zone change, he argued, “would tip the scales a ways.”

Local attorney Rahn Hostetter, representing S&V Properties and principal Paula Krieger, was the only person to testify in support of the application. His arguments ultimately carried the day, though, as he repeatedly pointed out that the “overlay zone” – a reference to the Enterprise Watershed Area – would impose strict protective measures on any future development on the commercially rezoned piece. Although opponents have in part argued that the overlay zone’s restrictions aren’t conducive to normal commercial development, Hostetter said his client doesn’t expect to get around any of those restrictions.

“They say such things won’t be allowed in the overlay zone and we say that’s right,” Hostetter said.

On the other hand, the applicant is sharply at odds with opponents over their contention that potential risk to the springs should be factored into the rezoning decision. Hostetter said this line of attack amounted to, “We oppose this because we don’t want any risk.” The attorney told county planners, “That’s not a basis for you to deny this request.” He later added: “How does a zone change potentially contaminate the springs? How, by drafting a piece of paper?”

Although S&V’s application mentions a possible development scenario – constructing an office and warehouse and providing a helipad and parking for up to 206 cars – that proposal, geared toward leasing the site to the U.S. Forest Service or some other government agency, isn’t formal at this stage. Any commercial development would be subject to county-administered commercial use-permitting, and that process would presumably apply the watershed area’s stringent limitations.

As planners deliberated the matter, some on the panel argued for entrusting the springs’ protection to the permitting process.

“I’m hoping that the pieces that are in place will protect the watershed. I want that watershed protected,” said board member Phillips, who made the rezone-supporting motion that ultimately passed.

Scott Lathrop, who would cast the only dissenting vote in planners’ final 4-1 tally, said his professional experience in the insurance industry made him aware of a troubling phenomenon that can defy the protections of a strict permit: “sudden, accidental discharge into a water system... Those are the ones that we pay lots and lots and lots of money on.” Lathrop said he worried such an accident was possible “even with the overlay zone.”

Planners initially voted 3-2 in favor of Phillips’ motion. When Wallowa County Planning Director Harold Black, the board’s advisor, informed the group a decision required a minimum of four votes, however, the board continued deliberating. Board member Curry, one of the two original dissenters, in time swung his vote in the rezone’s favor. In making the switch, Curry cited the influence of the watershed area’s existing industrial activity, which Curry believes hasn’t presented a contamination issue. Aircraft tire manufacturer Alaskan Bushwheel operates within the protected area.

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