Joseph Branch Trail Consortium (JBTC) filed a Conditional Use Permit with the Wallowa County Planning oﬃce on or about January 9th of this year. On February 26th the permit was denied by the Wallowa County Planning Commission. The JBTC filed an Appeal of that decision on April 8th. Some of you know all about it. Some of you are in favor, some opposed, and some I’m sure have no idea what I am referring to. Since this has become such a divisive issue among the aﬀected parties, I would like to give a some background to hopefully help people have a better understanding of the issues regarding this project.
JBTC wants to build a 6 mile trail next to the RR tracks from Joseph to Enterprise. The majority of this corridor is zoned EFU, which is Exclusive Farm Use. Many of the farmers and ranchers and other residents along this corridor object to the harm they believe this will cause to their farming and ranching operations. That is a very basic description of the situation.
JBTC was formalized in 2014. They initially spoke with some corridor landowners and listened to their concerns, objections and fears about how their businesses and lives would be adversely aﬀected by a Trail being developed in their backyard so to speak. The JBTC then held public meetings, did studies and moved forward with their project. At some point in 2016 JBTC stopped communicating with landowners they knew had concerns about the project. (Page 11 of the PC Meeting minutes 2/26 the President of JBTC states this) They spent the next 2 years working on their CUP Application for the trail. Landowners began to breathe a sigh of relief as they wrongly assumed the silence from JBTC meant their concerns had been heard and the plan abandoned.
January 9th, JBTC files their CUP application, and no landowner is aware of this until about 2/6. While the Application was noticed on a bulletin board in the Wallowa County Courthouse. There are not many of us that go into the courthouse daily or weekly to see what might have been filed unless perhaps we are expecting something to be filed that will aﬀect our lives. The Planning Department does it’s job by sending the landowners notices and publishing the Permit in the Chieftain on February 6th. This is fully within the legal requirement for them, but is almost a month after the permit was originally filed. During the previous month before notification, JBTC sends out letters to it’s supporters and asks that they send letters of support to the Planning Commission by February 8th, and states how important it is we get them in. (yes I received one of the letters, don’t ask me why, I don’t know). For this reason a large number of letters in support are received by the Planning Commission early in the process. The opponents of the project, having received their notice around 2/6 are slower in their response and submit their letters of opposition later in the month, but within the allowed time of “before 5:00 on 2/26”. The Planning Department writes their “Staﬀ Report” between 2/12 and 2/14 and makes their recommendation based on the materials available at that time.
The Wallowa County Planning Commission is appointed by our County Commissioners to their posts. They are volunteers and receive no pay for the work they do. It is comprised of people with a broad spectrum of knowledge and/or experience in areas including Real Estate, Agriculture, Engineering, a former Wallowa County Assessor and a retired resident of the County. The County Commissioners had enough faith in their expertise, dedication to their Community and ability to understand the law as it applies to land use to appoint these people to the Commission.
The Planning Commission bases their decisions by the facts presented to them in both the Application and also in materials submitted by both opposing and supporting sides of the issue. Numerous letters were received on both sides of this issue. After the Commission received their initial packets including the Staﬀ Report, they continued to regularly receive the materials submitted after that time. There are diﬀerent types of letters that are written and therefore most likely weighted diﬀerently for their content. For example, letters which express people’s opinions such as “I hate the idea of a trail in MY backyard”. Or, “I love the idea of a trail in THEIR backyard”, are probably not weighted as heavily as those which make specific and factual statements or claims. Such as farmers or ranchers who detail specific harm to their operations and livelihoods and therefore oppose the trail, or letters from proponents who cite how the Application has met the legal standard for things such as “traﬃc calming”.
The law states that “The purpose of the Exclusive Farm Use Zone is to provide areas for the continuation of existing commercial agricultural activities and permit the establishment of only those new uses which are compatible with agricultural activities. The intention of the Exclusive Farm Use Zone is to guarantee the preservation of the areas classified as farm use free from conflicting non-farm uses.” This is the standard for part of the Application which the Planning Commission HAD to consider in relation to the farmers and ranchers who sent their letters into the Commission before the hearing. Especially because the vast majority of the proposed trail is in the EFU Zone.
The Planning Commission voted and decided 5-1 to deny the JBTC Application. I believe they made the correct decision, and it dismays me to see the verbal abuse heaped on the Commission by members of the public who disagree with their well thought out, factual and legal decision. It is a sometimes thankless job these men and women have taken on and we as a community should be grateful to them for doing the hard work and having the spine to make unpopular decisions that are nevertheless the right decision.
As a rancher in Wallowa County I sympathize with the concerns of the farmers and ranchers along this section of the proposed trail regarding the significant harm that a trail directly adjacent to their livestock and crops would do to their businesses. I am grateful we have a Planning Commission who dedicate their time to this County and would like to take the opportunity to thank them for all their hard work.