Michael Yunker loves his ranch on the Umatilla River.
He doesn’t love the idea of giving up 10 acres of it to store the city of Echo’s recycled water. But the city may not give him any choice in the matter.
Yunker was given a letter from the city’s attorney in December stating that the city needed somewhere to locate a “reclaimed water” pond and irrigation field to upgrade to the city’s sewer system. Engineers had determined that a 10-acre section of his 65-acre property was the best spot.
The city could take the land from Yunker and compensate him for it in a legal process called condemnation, the letter stated, but it would be better for him to sell it voluntarily so the city did not have to handle the situation in the “most expensive and least neighborly way.”
The news hit Yunker hard.
“I kind of went into a funk,” he said. “I didn’t know what to do.”
He called those 10 acres the “heart” of his ranch. They encompass the only area of the ranch not in a flood plain, he said, as well as his pump and irrigation lines. The condemnation would also include an easement to build an access road. And he worries what his home will smell like when the project gets up and running.
“It would trash my place,” he said. “It would never be the same.”
City administrator Diane Berry said in an email to the East Oregonian that the proposed project would not take Yunker’s home, as rumored around Echo, but would only encompass a “small piece” of field.
When private property owners like Yunker refuse to sell their land to make way for a public project, the government does have the power to go to court and take the land via eminent domain. The property owner is given fair market value as compensation, but they don’t get a choice of refusing to sell.
In this case, the city of Echo will argue that the property is needed for a sewer system upgrade, which Berry said the city has faced “epic” problems in trying to complete, including lack of funding and changing regulations. If the project does not go forward soon, she said the small city could face “tremendous fines.”
Paul Daniello, a natural resources specialist at the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Pendleton office, said the city of Echo is under order to upgrade its sewer system because the recycled water it is discharging into the Umatilla River does not meet permit requirements for biochemical oxygen demand, which are in place to make sure there is enough dissolved oxygen in the river for organisms like fish to survive.
Daniello said when it first became a problem more than 10 years ago, the city signed a mutual agreement with the DEQ to meet less strict, interim limits while it planned an upgrade and pursued funding. The city is now on its sixth extension of that agreement, which now requires construction to be completed by December 2019.
“This has been dragging on for a number of years,” Daniello said.
There is no guarantee the DEQ will grant another extension, which is why the city is anxious to begin the upgrade project. According to drawings given to Yunker, treated water previously discharged into the Umatilla River would instead go into an approximately 10-acre section of Yunker’s ranch, using a two-acre water pond slowly emptying into a three-acre irrigation field with 100-foot buffer.
The need for the project is clear, given the DEQ fines hanging over the city’s head. But what is less clear to Yunker is why the city can’t locate the project somewhere else.
That’s a question that went unanswered after a follow-up email to Berry, but minutes from the council’s November 17, 2016 meeting show that mayor Jeanie Hampton stated she felt that Echo residents would understand the city’s decision to pursue Yunker’s land, given another possible site would take a projected $100,000 to develop and was part of a sale that would take up to a year to finalize.
Her comments came following a unanimous vote by the council to “authorize the city attorney and (engineer) Anderson Perry and Associates to move forward with the condemnation of the needed portion of the Yunker property.”
Yunker received the letter from Kuhn Law Offices about two weeks later. He said after sustaining brain damage in an explosion at the LNG natural gas plant in Plymouth, Washington, he has trouble expressing his thoughts out loud, so a friend helped him put his thoughts down in a letter he intended to read at the next city council meeting. He said the council told him he needed to read the letter to them in a closed-door executive session.
Yunker said he has tried to make his reasons for not wanting to sell to the city clear: He plans to pass the ranch, which he purchased in 1985, down to his children.
The property is not for sale, he said, and certainly not for a sewer project that will “greatly devalue my home and remaining acreage.”
Since his appearance at city council, Yunker said he has not heard back from the city.
Contact Jade McDowell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-564-4536.