Umatilla County seeks to reduce road project snags

A car drives on East Airport Road on Friday near EOTEC. The county decided recently to spearhead a series of private one-on-one meetings with individual residents in the area to provide more information about the plan and to help alleviate concerns.

Umatilla County aims to hold private, individual meetings with approximately 20 property owners to find ways to mitigate the effects of improvements along Hermiston’s Airport Road. The property owners, however, will have to request those meetings.

Owners along the road leading to the front entrance of the Eastern Oregon Event and Trade Center have been building in the public right-of-way for decades. The county surveyed the area last year for the upcoming project to widen Airport Road and build other improvements and found owners and residents have built as much as 13 feet onto county property.

Commissioner George Murdock, chair of the county board, said the situation is common throughout the county, with some folks even farming on public right-of-ways. Most people understand the risks that come with building on property they don’t own, he said, and property owners along Airport Road likely will have to deal with some effects of the road project.

The county board of commissioners in this case will vote Wednesday morning in Pendleton to approve a plan for a commissioner, a representative of the county road department, an engineer and “others deemed necessary” to meet with individual property owners adjacent to Airport Road to discuss those effects and possible solutions.

Chris Waine is one of the Airport Road residents. He also is founder and frontman for the Hermiston Airport Road Neighborhood Association, which is pushing the county to hold a public hearing on the road improvement project. Waine questioned why the county would want to conduct individual meetings.

“They know there is a boundary issue, they know there is a dispute,” he said. “Just hold the hearing and hear what the community has to say.”

While that might be easier, Murdock said, it may not be better. “Everyone in the room jumping up and down” during a hearing would not allow the county to tailor possible resolutions to meet individual needs, Murdock said, which could range from relocating fences to granting easements for items encroaching on the right-of-way.

“There isn’t a great solution,” Murdock said, “We have to look at each individual property, and I think when this is all said and done, these individuals won’t be as impacted as some people are projecting.”

The private meetings also could allow for more candid discussions, and Murdock said as a property owner he would feel more comfortable standing on his own land talking with a few officials than standing in a room full of people and addressing the county board.

If the board approves the plan, the individuals have to ask for the meetings, and the sessions will not produce meeting minutes. Murdock said any deal that comes out of the meetings, however, would be public.

The county has no legal requirement to hold a public hearing for the road project. Waine said he has talked with the office of Republican state Rep. Greg Smith, Heppner, to change that. When there are controversies over development and the lay of the land, he said, Oregon law should require public hearings.

He also contended the county’s proposal looks like a formality. He said he plans to attend the Wednesday meeting on behalf of his neighbors and suggest the board table the topic. He said the solution is simple enough: the county commissioner could vote to vacate 13 feet of the southern boundary right-of-way.

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