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Take This Plan and Shred It: Detailed growth plan rankles conservative county commission 

Detailed growth plan rankles conservative county commission.

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Unless they happen to outline military invasions, planning documents don't usually generate a whole lot of public interest, let alone controversy. Then there's the Deschutes Comprehensive Plan draft, which over the last week has sparked a flurry of angry e-mails from citizens and fueled heated exchanges at recent public meetings.

The imbroglio over the roughly 420-page document came to a head this past week during a series of public meetings and resulted in a temporary stand-off of sorts between planning staff, who prepared the document after a year of public input and more than a dozen public meetings, and the planning commission, which is charged with overseeing the process. However, the draft, which was released in September, was met with howls of protest from a majority of planning commissioners who said the document was too detailed and cumbersome.

The planning commissioners, who are appointed by the board of county commissioners as an advisory body, are now flexing their political muscle and plan to strip one of the document's primary features, an initiative labeled "Action Items." The section is a relatively common feature of comprehensive plan documents and outlines how different policies will be implemented. The actions are broken out into near term, which include ongoing activities, as well as long-range activities that the county plans to undertake over the next five to 25 years. Planning commissioners, however, have blasted the level of detail, which they say is unnecessary and overly restrictive.

"It is a comprehensive plan or is it a 'thou shalt do this on every square mile of Deschutes County," said Christen Brown, a semi-retired accountant who joined the commission this year after successfully battling the county over his plans for a roadside fruit stand east of Bend.

Brown is one of several commissioners who have had first-hand experience with the county planning process and believe it to be too cumbersome. Ed Criss, a relative newcomer to the commission, is a veteran of the south county groundwater battle. Criss served on the La Pine Citizen Action Group, which bitterly opposed the county's efforts to regulate septic systems in the La Pine area. Commission chair Keith Cyrus is the patriarch of a family that has been trying unsuccessfully for several years to get the county to reclassify his family's golf course development outside Sisters as a destination resort, which would free it from some of the restrictive county and state development rules. A grandfatherly figure whose family has been farming in the area for the better part of a century, Cyrus has become a target of late because of his potential conflict of interest.

The local chapter of the Sierra Club recently sent a letter to county commissioners asking that Cyrus, "be required to explain why he feels he cannot only participate in, but direct meetings when he has a direct financial stake in the outcome of destination resort remapping."

Both the planning commissioners and the three-member county commission have chafed at such criticism.

"I can show you any planning commission in the state of Oregon and make that criticism," said Brown, who fought his own battles with county staff before hiring an attorney and appealing his case up to the board of commissioners.

Brown, who put himself through college at Oregon State University by raising pigs, said the fruit stand fight with county staff cost him six months worth of sales and a bundle in fees. It also taught him that the county doesn't always have a reasonable response to a reasonable request.

"It was a rip-roaring battle to get this thing off the ground," he says of the fruit stand that is located on his Knott Road property.

The tension between the staff and commission has been evident at recent meetings. Last week, planning director Nick Lelack presented a memo to the county commission in which he informed the commission that the staff was ready to start over based on the commission's hostile reception of the draft.

Planning commissioners say that the staff rolled out its 400-plus-page draft plan without seeking any formal input from the planning commission on the scope and format of the document.

Richard Klyce, another commissioner who came to the planning commission after tangling with planning staff, acknowledged that he and a majority of his colleagues take a skeptical view of the current planning laws, and in some cases, the staff who implement those policies

"Many of us on the planning commission, to put it bluntly, have gotten screwed over by the county and we all had the thought that there has to be a better way to run things than the way the county is doing right now."

In the case of the draft plan, however, Brown said it's not so much a personality conflict with the staff as it is a problem with the process.

"Somehow the process is not working right now," Brown said. "It's not a personnel issue with staff. The problem is the way they present issues to us. They bring us in too late."

Staff doesn't necessarily agree. At a meeting last week where commissioners grumbled that they'd been steamrolled by the staff's draft plan after there being little chance to give input or direction, planner Terri Payne pointed out that the commission had held more than a dozen public meetings for public input comment and discussion, all of which included the commission and staff.

"It's not like you haven't had an opportunity to comment. We did that for an entire year," Payne said in an exchange that seemed to underscore the staff's frustration with the commission - even as the staff was agreeing to a major overhaul of the plan and a new timeline. Under the new approach the planning commission will individually go through the entire document with a scoring sheet, essentially giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down on each section. Those that score low will be struck. Those that score high will be retained. And those in the middle will be put forth for further discussion. By most accounts, the planning commission would like to shrink the document by about 300 pages, leaving about 100 pages of maps, statewide requirements and local policies. Commissioners say such a document would be easier for the public to navigate and easier for the county to implement.

Klyce, a Redmond builder and a critic of the draft plan, likened the commission's goal to crafting something like the U.S. Constitution versus the entire U.S. Judicial Code.

However, some observers worry that scaling back the document could also take the teeth out of the project, leaving a set of loosely defined goals and policies that are subject to wide interpretation.

Conservation groups such as Sierra Club, Trout Unlimited and the Upper Deschutes River Coalition have all weighed in favor of retaining the portions of the draft plan that lay out the county's short and long-term strategies. Depending on how much the planning commission backs out of the draft, conservationists fear it could end up looking a lot like the current, three-decade old plan, which they say is not only out of date, but out of touch with current values.

"Having a 35-year-old comprehensive plan allows us to continue with the trends of degradation and habitat loss," said Darek Staab, Trout Unlimited's project manager in Central Oregon.

While Staab said his organization is open to incorporating the "action" items into the county's policies, as the board of commissioners has suggested, it's important that the substance of the initiatives remain in the document.

In the meantime, the commission has given itself 60 days to complete its review and scoring of the draft plan while continuing to honor a series of previously noticed public meetings. After it has completed that initial work the commission plans to hold a series of work sessions, which will open to the public, to hammer out a revised draft plan.

The Board of County Commissioners, which will have the final say on the plan, has already been lobbied hard by conservation-minded constituents who want to retain the staff's draft plan, or at least its framework. And it's possible that they are listening. The commissioners have intervened once in the past week to put the process back on track. And while the three county commissioners have given broad leeway to the planning commission in its re-write, they've also said that they want to see both versions of the plan before they begin their own process of revising and ultimately adopting the new document.


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