The family that owned Lehman Hot Springs through most of the previous century is working to restore the troubled resort.

Fancho “Fee” Stubblefield, a 1983 graduate of Pendleton High School, has followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who each were named Fancho Stubblefield and each owned Lehman Hot Springs.

Fee Stubblefield, now of McMinnville, bought the 242-acre site near Ukiah last July for $1.25 million, about twice what the previous owner paid for it in 2010 in a foreclosure auction, according to Umatilla County records.

The county noted of the sale, “Buyer feels they paid over market value for personal reasons.”

Those reasons run deep as blood, he said during a recent interview with the East Oregonian. Fee Stubblefield’s grandfather, the first Fancho Stubblefield, paid $500 cash and took on a $6,500 mortage for the property in July 1925. He sold the resort in 1943 and got it back a few years later after the owner burned it down for insurance money, he said.

The family sold it again and got it back again in the 1970s, and Fancho Stubblefield II sold it in 1988 when the economy forced his hand.

Fee Stubblefield did not discuss money but said he has deep feelings for the hot springs located in the timberlands of the Blue Mountains. For more than 100 years it was favorite recreation spot for travelers and Eastern Oregonians. He recalled working on the lodge there as a teen when his father owned it, and in researching the site’s history found Cayuse Indians considered it a place of healing and refuge.

“There’s a lot of history there,”?Fee Stubblefield said. “It’s a labor of love ... a hard place to make a living on — work is 12 to 14 hours a day.”

Right now, Fee Stubblefield isn’t making a living on the hot springs and does not have plans to reopen it to the public.

The resort has been closed since mid-2009, when a judge ordered former owner John Patrick Lucas of Sherwood and his corporate entities to cease operations because of unsafe sewage lagoons. The Oregon Department of Justice then went after Lucas for water pollution. He pleaded guilty in March 2012 to 12 counts of second-degree water pollution, a Class A misdemeanor — eight for personal charges and two each for Lehman Development Corp. and the Lehman Hot Spring LLC. Lucas faces sentencing on the charges Jan. 29 in Courtroom 2 at the Umatilla County Courthouse, Pendleton.

Stubblefield said he is aware of the problems and paying “a fortune” to correct them. Most of that work was to replace the plastic liner in one of the two nearly acre-sized sewage lagoons. Lehman project manager Dan Upshaw said in late fall 20 workers took three days to install the new liner when a break in weather provided the right conditions of temperature and humidity. Crews used a special machine to weld together seams of 26-foot wide rolls of plastic sheeting and tested the strength of the material before each weld. The welding machine also recorded each operation, so if there is a problem later, someone can track it down.

“This is not just throwing a plastic liner in a hole,” Upshaw said. “These lagoons are really a big deal ... we’re addressing issues that have to be addressed, there’s no doubt about the lagoon and the sanitation issue has to be corrected.”

Upshaw said the lagoon is using the best technology available and called the new work environmentally sound.

“I would not want to say never, but it would be almost impossible to leak now,” he said.

With winter in full swing, Upshaw has been “putting things back together and getting stuff up to snuff” around the rest of the site, from fixing a leaking roof to replacing broken water pipes. Forest rehabilitation is part of the work and when the weather allows, Upshaw said, contractors will assess the status of the second lagoon and build drainage for overflow and storm water for both lagoons.

And Upshaw and Stubblefield said they are also working on repairing relationships.

“It’s one of those things where you have a lot of history with different agencies that haven’t been real positive relationships,” Upshaw said. He said he has had to mend ties with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the state’s drinking water program as well as the Umatilla County Public Health Department.

Lehman Hot Springs had been a bane of state authorities and environmental regulators. The state cited the facility for numerous illegal wastewater discharges, including in 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2005 and 2006. That was all during Lucas’ ownership.

Heidi Williams of the Pendleton DEQ office has overseen the hot springs for years, which has operated without a permit for the sewage lagoons since 2002. She said Stubblefield has applied for a permit for those lagoons, the first step toward compliance with environmental regulations.

Williams visited with Fee Stubblefield and his team and shared her knowledge of the site, and in October she approved the plans to install the new lining in the upper lagoon. Fee Stubblefield and Upshaw credited Williams and other monitors with a willingness to work with them.

Fee Stubblefield said he didn’t have plans to reopen Lehman Hot Springs, but he does want an environmentally clean resort. He also deeded the resort to his limited liability company, TSL Foundation. He said he wants to ensure “this in-and-out ownership” doesn’t happen again.

The Department of Environmental Quality is taking comments about the permit until 5 p.m. of Feb. 12. For information on how to send comments, call the Pendleton office at 541-278-4605 or look under the “Public Notices” link at www.oregon.gov/DEQ .

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Contact Phil Wright at pwright@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0833.

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