SISTERS – Deschutes County Commissioner Linda Swearingen finished her many years in local politics on Wednesday, back where it all started on Aug. 5, 1985 – at Sisters City Hall.
“I’ve come full circle,” Swearingen said with a smile as she hugged and greeted Sisters City Administrator Barbara Warren before the start of a county commission (and later, joint city council) meeting that wrapped up a lot of loose ends – but fittingly, had one lingering Sisters land use controversy that could land in the lap of her successor, fellow Republican Mike Daly.
Swearingen, who has brushed aside talk of future political ambitions, cleaned out her desk and office later Wednesday as she prepared to take the full-time reins of a part-time passion in recent months: running a new support program she started for women leaving prison, called Bridges of Hope.
Even before she was sworn in as county commissioner four years ago, the former Sisters city councilor and mayor vowed not to run for re-election in 2000. Asked Wednesday if four years was enough, she said once more, “Oh, yeah!”
Sisters, the town that clings to its frontier Western style as it struggles with growth, is about to reach a milestone. Warren confirmed that the first customers should be hooked up to the city’s new sewer system around the first of the year. The small, dark-wood paneled City Council chambers have four oversized checks mounted on the walls, representing a combined federal loan/grant package of more than $9 million that helped make the sewer happen.
Swearingen, who has been the board of commissioners’ chairman for the past two years, joined her colleagues in approving a set of agreements between the county, the five-member county fair board and the nonprofit Deschutes County Fair Association. The county has agreed to pick up $440,000 in outstanding claims against the fair association, but commissioners vowed to work to make sure the public is repaid from future revenues at the sprawling $30 million county fairgrounds and expo center.
Luke calls fairgrounds vote one of his toughest, fires back at Gregory
Under an “assumption agreement,” the fair association transfers all of its assets to the county, in return for the county paying off its obligations. The fair association will have to apply for its sought-after role of running next summer’s county fair, as it has for decades. A consultant has been brought in to help the association craft a business plan that will pass muster with the fair board and county commissioners. The deadlines are tight: a draft budget and business plan are due by mid-January.
“I’ve had some tough votes in my time as a state legislator and county commissioner, but this is one of the toughest ones,” said Commissioner Dennis Luke, clearly peeved at how Fair Association President Elton Gregory has pinned much of the blame for the fairgrounds fiscal woes on the county – when, commissioners say, Gregory and colleagues refused repeated offers for help in the past.
“Elton Gregory has spread the truth so thin,” Luke said, vowing not to support fair association operation of the county fair “unless a very good accounting system” is in place.
Commissioner Tom DeWolf said he and his colleagues have been united in their handling of the mess. He also said the problem has not been with the many volunteers who “put their heart and soul” into the fair and that “a lot of them are embarrassed” by what’s taken place. “Our problem has always been with the management,” he said, insisting there’s still “no better entity to run the annual fair than the DCFA.” DeWolf also noted that Columbia River Bank had volunteered to waive late fees and interest charges on its $100,000 line of credit to the fair association. “That could have been a deal breaker on this thing,” he said.
The county had laid down deadlines to resolve the contracts before Swearingen leaves office. She said Wednesday, “I’m just glad this fairgrounds saga is over.” But Luke disagreed: “It’s not over. It’s just starting.” DeWolf said the amount of temporary public subsidy of the fair represents less than 1 percent of the county’s overall budget, but that the fairgrounds problem has taken up 50 percent of commissioners’ time of late.
The last matter on the agenda lasted the longest, as commissioners took divided public testimony on two proposed development agreements between the city, county and the Barclay Meadows development in one case, the Sisters School District the other. The agreements put limits on the type of uses in the proposed business park and a cap on the number of vehicle trips they can generate, but that didn’t satisfy those who said a 50-foot buffer between the business park and low-density residential developments to the north is not enough and that traffic and other woes will hurt their property values.
Neighbors oppose zone change, vow to seek Measure 7 relief if possible
Some neighboring residents, including Tom Weeks, Patricia Kearney and Denny Ebner, have vowed to seek compensation under Measure 7 for any reduction in their property value, should the initiative survive legal challenges. But Luke noted that some lawyers believe the complex measure only relates to the zoning rules on a piece of property, not the impacts from zoning decisions on neighboring property.
Barclay Meadows lawyer Tia Lewis said the “limited use combining zone” would relieve neighbors concerns. But Sisters resident William Boyer, representing the Alliance for Responsible Land Use in Deschutes County, claimed many troublesome potential uses remain, from soft drink bottling plans to dry cleaners or fish/meat processors. He also warned that the developments will significantly boost traffic on Locust Street, causing safety problems at the adjacent middle and elementary schools, and that promises to limit peak-hour trips on each parcel to about 200 vehicles are unenforceable.
Ebner, who lives on Camp Polk Road, urged everyone to look at an alternative of swapping for Forest Service lands west of town. DeWolf said that would just shift the problem, not get rid of it. Ebner even went so far as to claim a recent vote by Sisters residents to annex the two parcels of property had been found to be illegal. DeWolf asked Ebner to provide solid evidence before the written record closes in a week. If Luke and DeWolf don’t agree on a decision, Daly – who was in attendance Wednesday – might get to cast the deciding vote.
Swearingen urged the developers to get together privately with the neighbors and try working out some solutions for buffering that could save everyone years of legal battles.
It’s a familiar peacemaker role for Swearingen, who helped resolve a condemnation mess with Deschutes Junction land owner Tony Aceti shortly after taking office in 1997. Fittingly, Wednesday’s agenda included underpass and utility easements for Aceti, as phase 2 of the junction’s overpass project approaches – another full circle completed.