HERMISTON — In the midst of a global pandemic and pending litigation from property owners disputing its claim to a right-of-way, Umatilla County charged ahead with construction of its project on Airport and Ott roads in Hermiston this week, prompting a standoff of sorts with aggrieved property owners in the process.
“You can’t come out here and damage someone’s property on a hunch,” said Chris Waine, who lives on the southwest corner of Airport and Ott roads and filed a lawsuit in the county circuit court with his wife, Monique, against the county and city of Hermiston in hopes of halting the project.
The $1.2 million project’s goal is to expand the roads that connect Highway 395 to the Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center into two lanes, plus a center turn lane. The county has billed the project as a needed road improvement for increased traffic and dust in the area during the Umatilla County Fair and other events.
“All someone would have to do is stand out there during the fair and it becomes awfully apparent how needed the project is,” said Umatilla County Commissioner Bill Elfering.
According to a 2017 agreement between Hermiston and Umatilla County, the road project is also an obligation of the county to complete in order to officially dissolve the intergovernmental agreement between the two entities and transfer ownership of EOTEC to the city.
Hermiston City Manager Byron Smith said Friday that the city won’t be commenting on pending litigation.
Waine, who is also president of the Hermiston Airport Road Neighborhood Association, doesn’t oppose the project’s concept for improvement, but merely its design and execution.
Under its current plan, Waine says he’ll lose 11 feet on the north end of his property and 5 feet on the east end, which will cost him upward of $10,000 by requiring him to permanently move his septic system and impact trees, fences and other assets of at least four other properties in the neighborhood.
While Umatilla County claims its surveying and engineering indicates the land is rightfully its right-of-way to use for road improvements, Waine claims the county is relying on mistakenly erroneous surveys and other survey records of his property going back to 1907 and historical markers dispute this claim.
Waine’s lawsuit, which was filed in the Umatilla County Circuit Court on March 16 and served to the county and city on April 6, seeks the property title to be cleared of the alleged erroneous survey records and a permanent injunction enacted to prevent that stretch of land of being utilized or trespassed on by the county.
But until a ruling is made, the county will move ahead with construction under its initial plans despite the disputed boundary.
“I have not heard any discussions about pausing it,” Elfering said, while noting the county stands by its survey records and expects the alleged conflict to be resolved soon.
Waine said he’s filed an emergency injunction to halt the project before the full case can be considered but its status remains unclear.
Umatilla County Trial Court Administrator Roy Blaine said Friday that paperwork was coming in for the lawsuit and a judge may begin to look over the facts of the case next week. However, Blaine wasn’t sure how soon a ruling could come or if one could be made without an official hearing, which likely wouldn’t happen until June.
Standoff starts as project breaks
Waine and other property owners in the neighborhood said they received no prior notice or a timeline for the project before crews with Tapani Inc., of Battle Ground, Washington, which the county contracted for the construction, began tearing up Airport Road Monday evening.
When asked about the company’s involvement with the project, Kevin Tapani, vice president of business development, said they were aware of the pending litigation and hoping for a quick and just resolution.
“From a contractor’s standpoint, we’re always aiming to be the most cost-effective we can be, and to get a project done in a quality and timely manner,” Tapani said. “We hope this doesn’t impact the project schedule too much, but we want to see a right and fair resolution.”
Waine was greeted by another surprising sight Tuesday morning when employees with Anderson Perry, the La Grande-based firm hired to engineer the project, began congregating outside his house alongside Matt Kenney from the county’s surveying department and two deputies from the Umatilla County Sheriff’s Office.
The meeting, which Waine filmed and posted to his Facebook page, was called by project manager Mike Lees of Anderson Perry without Waine’s knowledge, he said, though the group was waiting to speak with him about the impending removal of his fence that rested in the disputed right-of-way easement.
From Waine’s perspective, the meeting was an attempt to intimidate him into complying with the county’s wishes.
“What this looks like to me is a bully,” Waine can be heard saying to Lees in the video of the meeting.
Lees says in the video the meeting was needed because of pushback they received, and one of the deputies in the video is also heard telling Waine that they were called “to help keep the peace.”
Umatilla County Sheriff Terry Rowan said he was asked to appear at the meeting, which was framed to him as an agreed upon meeting between two parties. Rowan ended up sending two of his deputies, and after speaking with Waine on Thursday, he understood the complaint and made it clear his office won’t directly interfere with the dispute, except if needed to maintain safety.
“I can see where a person could draw that conclusion and feel a bit intimidated,” Rowan said of the incident.
Lees didn’t respond to a request for comment Friday.
Elfering said he couldn’t comment on any accusations of intimidation because he was unaware of any if it was happening.
In an attempt to block the county, Waine gathered all the vehicles and farm equipment he and his neighbors could find and began to line the fence with them later that day. But in what Waine calls another attempt to bully them into submission, Larry Rowan, a code enforcement officer with the county, was sent to tag each vehicle and have it towed.
In another video taken by Waine, Larry Rowan says he was defying that order and would let the vehicles be.
Yet, that didn’t stop employees from the county public works department from working around the vehicles when they were sent to cut and take down Waine’s fence on Wednesday.
“You don’t have to do this. There’s a court case pending right now,” Waine is heard pleading with the employees as they cut the wire of his fence and pulled it down during a video he took Wednesday.
Excavation began a few feet into the disputed easement Tuesday, but stopped there for the week. But Waine remains concerned about historical markers that have been exposed, and the possibility of evidence he needs for his court case being tampered with as a result.
So, Waine kept the vehicles parked along the disputed boundary and called for his neighbors and friends in the community to come and help him hold the line against the project.
HollyJo Beers, lead of the Umatilla County Three Percenters and a candidate in the May 19 primary for Umatilla County Commissioner, spent Thursday afternoon at the Waine’s property, pledging her and her group’s support for their cause and felt the county’s actions have been premature.
“I just feel like the county should at least wait for adjudication before tearing up his property,” she said.
Duane Ehmer, who was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison for digging a trench in January 2016 during the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Burns, saw Waine’s posts on Facebook and drove from his home in Irrigon to do what he felt was right.
“We have to stop people from being stepped on,” he said. “You always have to do what’s right — no matter the result.”
Waine said he spoke with Ehmer and everyone else who has shown up at his property in support, and they’re all in agreement that there’s no intention to escalate the situation. Waine also highlighted the current dispute bears little if any resemblance to the wildlife refuge occupation considering it involves his own private property, not public lands.
“We’re just holding the line,” he said.
County previously denied public hearing
As the conflict evolved this week, Waine couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if Umatilla County granted his request earlier this year to have a public hearing on vacating the right-of-way.
“We’re all stakeholders in this project and in this community. We all deserve a seat at the table and to have our input heard,” he said. “If they had just granted us a public hearing, I think a lot of this would have already been solved.”
Waine said he was given the impression by Umatilla County Counsel Doug Olsen that if he went through the process of gathering the necessary signatures to petition for a public hearing, then he and his neighbors would get one.
Instead, the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners ruled unanimously on Feb. 5 against a public hearing, stating they felt concerns over the project had been mitigated and the aggrieved parties had their opportunity to be heard.
“I’d just like to remind the board that we’ve had numerous meetings with the Airport Road residents and they’ve had ample opportunity to express their desires and needs, I think, without us needing to go through the hearing process,” Elfering said at the time.
But Waine gathered 27 signatures, of those who opposed the current plans for the project, which he says makes up 80% of the neighborhood, and none of those individuals have changed their position since.
Elfering said that as of Friday he had yet to hear directly “one way or the other” if residents were actually satisfied or not with the county’s concessions for the project.
Rich Misener’s property sits diagonal of the Waine’s property to the northeast and won’t be directly impacted by the project, but he was at the county’s meeting with the neighborhood last year. While he can’t say for sure who’s right and who’s wrong about the boundary dispute, Misener strongly objected to the idea that the neighborhood was satisfied with the county’s offers to mitigate.
“I don’t know if Chris is right or the county is right,” he said. “But it needs to be figured out the right way, and this is not the right way.”
Nick Moses and his family, Waine’s neighbors to the west, oppose the project because it has potentially put their retaining wall at risk, which his father, uncle and grandfather built by hand with river rocks they gathered themselves more than 50 years ago.
“We don’t have the money to hire a lawyer and fight this,” Moses said. “But if Chris wins, it could set off a chain reaction all the way down the neighborhood.”
Elfering isn’t as confident that a public hearing would have solved the current disagreement and said that it ultimately may be best for it to be decided by a judge.
At this point, that’s all that Waine would like to see. But after everything he’s gone through to oppose the project since it was first introduced over two years ago, he has no plan of stepping down until then.
“Whenever I’ve gotten frustrated during this, I just remember the saying, ‘you can’t move a mountain in a day,” Waine said. “I’ve been waiting two years for a resolution, I can wait another few days.”