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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 2.22.07

Forces of Destruction

Measure 37 is only the latest assault on land use laws

BY BOB EMMONS

Thanks to Eugene Weekly and reporter Alan Pittman, voters have a well-researched and graphically captivating picture of the statewide land abuse fiasco purchased — on the cheap — by a handful of developers, corporations and speculators ("Looming Sprawl," 1/25). Left unsaid is that Measure 37 has opened a gaping and potentially lethal wound in a land use program already suffering the death of a thousand cuts — institutional corruption in which parasites like Greg Demers and the two McDougal brothers have been thriving for decades.

The story begging to be written would discover how the county's predisposition to development, its cozy relationship with developers' attorneys and agents and its lack of enforcement, coupled with negligence at the state and federal levels, have routinely facilitated the conversion of farms and forests to sprawling subdivisions. As a preface to that narrative, the 515-acre Bernheim property near Creswell exemplifies the modus operandi of three wastrels who for many years have been grasping farm and forest land all over the county. They profit first by clearcutting, next by subdividing the remainder into the smallest lots possible and then by moving on to the next farm or forest.

Demers and the McDougals contend that Bernard Bernheim, the Measure 37 claimant, owns the Creswell property even though they have an "option to purchase" that is perpetual; even though Demers is running cattle on it and has posted "No Trespassing" signs on the perimeter in the name of his company, Frontier Resources; and even though the McDougals have clearcut most of the trees. For this "option" Bernheim was paid more than $3 million, told neighbors that he'd sold the property and then reportedly purchased a McMansion on a Bend area ranchette.

Before the ink had dried on the option agreement, the McDougals dismantled a bridge crossing a Class I fish-bearing stream and — without a permit — rebuilt it to serve their logging operation. According to a neighbor who videotaped the project, the bridge was completely reconstructed, including new concrete piers, and during the work creosote-soaked timbers fell into the creek.

In response to numerous complaints, the county's compliance program manager declined to visit the site, consulting with the McDougals' legal counsel instead. The DEQ referred complaints to the Division of State Lands (DSL). A DSL field representative from Salem who looked at the bridge, talked with neighbors and issued a stop-work order was pulled off the case, and DSL did not inform the county of its stop work action. In his place the agent's supervisor took counsel from the McDougals' lawyer, and the agency concluded that it would take no action. For their part, the Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency said they were understaffed and could not investigate.

While complaints fell on deaf ears and neighbors grew more frustrated, three months passed, during which the McDougals had completed the bridge — work never stopped — and built new logging roads without a permit. The McDougals insist they've just replaced a few boards on the original bridge, the county issued a permit months after the bridge reconstruction was completed and the neighbor's video evidence remains unviewed.

Little wonder that land use practitioners consider enforcement programs a long-standing joke and that developers are having a field day.

To be sure, M37 is the nightmare Gov. Tom McCall anticipated when he implemented his land use planning program almost 35 years ago and thrice defended it against similar threats. From M37 Oregonians have learned the hard way what McCall knew all too well: Without zoning and enforcement protections, farms and forests are no more than feeding grounds for greed grown wholesale.

Yet Measure 37 merely took advantage of an already weakened system. Largely out of the public eye, LandWatch Lane County and the Goal One Coalition for years have been challenging the everyday applications to rezone productive farms and forests to marginal lands; to build in riparian zones and floodplains; and to illegally adjust property lines for template dwellings on resource lands. The more we expose these forces of darkness to the light of common day, the closer we come to driving a stake through their hearts. The media are a powerful and, I think, essential ally in that mission, and I eagerly await the Weekly's next installment.

Robert Emmons is president of LandWatch Lane County, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting Lane County's farms, forests and open space from urban sprawl. For more information, visit http://landwatch.net