After dancing around the issue for nearly two hours—and for years before Monday evening's meeting inside the Bend Park & Recreation District office building—the Mirror Pond ad hoc committee casually called a vote: Should we keep Mirror Pond or not?
Suddenly, at least a few of the roughly 50 community members in attendance sat up straighter.
And in a snap, a unanimous decision was made. All eight of the ad hoc committee members present chose to preserve the pond. (Committee member Matt Shinderman was notably absent on Monday.) While ultimately not a final resolution, the vote seems to move the committee toward focusing all its attention on making the pond stick around.
The surprising move elicited at least one "boo!" from the back of the room, and even seemed to top last week's dramatic revelations in the latest chapter of Bend's most watched soap opera.
For those who took a brief Thanksgiving vacation, previously on "As The Dam Leaks": last Monday, Pacific Power announced it was ready to offload the leaking, 103-year-old Newport Avenue dam—the very structure that creates Mirror Pond. That same day, two local businessmen stepped forward to explain that they have been brokering a deal to buy the land underneath the pond—and essentially, the pond itself—with the plans to preserve the city's icon and famous pale ale namesake.
In this week's episode, Monday's ad hoc committee vote—coupled with the pending purchase of the mud beneath the pond—seems to have fully tipped the hand of the city's power brokers: Keep the pond, even though public sentiment remains split.
That split wasn't fully addressed at Monday night's meeting. Early this year, an unscientific park district survey revealed that roughly 47 percent of residents want a free-flowing river, while nearly 43 percent prefer to keep the dam and with it, the pond.
But instead of serving as a closing chapter and settling the pond-or-river debate, the ad hoc committee's decision on Monday simply raises more questions, such as who will pay for the dam which, after all, is necessary if a pond is to remain?
Acquiring the dam from Pacific Power and repairing and updating the more than a century-old structure will cost millions, the crowd was told on Monday. And there are other prickly issues, too, said a park district attorney: Transferring the water rights attached to the dam will be a complex process, and one without precedent. Yet, in spite of all the mounting legal and financial arguments, there was scant mention of returning the pond to a free flowing river and forcing Pacific Power to pay for the associated costs of dam removal and stream restoration.
"We do know that the damage to the dam is fairly significant," said Park District Executive Director Don Horton. "My guess is that fish passage will be a requirement," he added, referring to updates likely required, should Pacific Power sell or transfer ownership of the dam. "And we'll need to find a way to transfer that [water] right to another use."
Park district attorney Neil Bryant said that asking for a legislative exception to the state rule, mandated by the Oregon Water Resources Department, is likely the best option, but one that would need to wait until January 2015, the next full session in Salem. Other avenues, such as seeking a transfer of the water right, would likely draw protests from community members and conservation groups, Bryant noted.
Next to speak during Monday's public meeting was Todd Taylor, CEO of heavy construction company Taylor Northwest and one of the two men to form Mirror Pond Solutions (the other is Bill Smith, developer of the Old Mill District). Taylor explained that he and Smith are prepared to purchase the 23.5 acres beneath Mirror Pond—from the Galveston Avenue bridge to the Newport Avenue bridge—for somewhere between $225,000 and $327,000. The amount would cover title research, mapping and testing of the sediment.
"This is not a profit center," Taylor said. "We took it on because of our passion for this pond."
City councilor and ad hoc committee member Mark Capell said he was similarly passionate about maintaining the pond, but worried that negotiating with Pacific Power over the dam would continue to be a sticking point.
"They want money," he explained. "We want them to rebuild and give it to us. We're a long way apart," he added.
As a Hail Mary, Capell mentioned that perhaps a "small mom and pop" utility company would take over ownership of the dated dam and its power-generating facility, a move that could preserve the pond and address the water rights problem. Capell and Horton are scheduled to meet with Pacific Power again later in the week.
Following those comments, Horton made the call that eventually initiated a committee vote.
"We're going to find a way to preserve the pond," Horton declared. With somewhat Solomon wisdom, Horton went on to explain that both sides could be happy if, in addition to keeping the pond, fish and recreation passages were added to the dam as well as natural features along the banks, to better appease those who want a free-flowing river. Removing the dam, he said, would please only those who want a river, and likely alienate those who want to preserve the pond.
"There's still a public process to go through," Horton added, referring to the notion that, ultimately, there will be a public vote whether to preserve the pond. "I understand both sides."
After the meeting, city councilor and ad hoc committee member Victor Chudowsky agreed, putting to rest, briefly, any fears of the committee steam-rolling ahead with its own agenda.
"There will be a vote," Chudowsky promised.