In April, state Rep. Gene Whisnant (R-Sunriver) amended House Bill 2027 from its original language to, according to the current bill's summary, prohibit "person, public body or local service district from constructing bridge on Deschutes River within certain segments of Deschutes Scenic Waterway." The bill was approved by the Oregon House April 27 and scheduled for a Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources hearing May 10.
The bill was puzzling to some—including members of the Bend Park and Recreation District—who contend that the pedestrian footbridge was a part of the 2012 Parks bond measure—which voters supported—in order to connect the communities of Tumalo and Sunriver via the Deschutes River Trail. BPRD had asked the Oregon State Parks and Recreation department to review the rules on that section of the river, with the goal of removing the rule prohibiting bridge construction.
According to the rules governing state scenic waterways, owners of property within ¼ of a mile of a scenic waterway have to give notice to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department before they can take actions such as "cutting of trees, mining, construction of roads, railroads, utilities, buildings, or other structures," according to the Oregon State Parks website. The rules also state: "New bridges will not be permitted." If Oregon Parks decided to change that bridge rule, however, the process could move forward.
In Whisnant's May 2 legislative update, he said of HB 2027: "I was concerned that the proposal to build a bridge over a specific portion of the Deschutes River would undermine scenic waterway protections in favor of a more direct route for a pedestrian trail. I also learned that "eminent domain" may be used to make this happen."
Bend Park and Recreation Director Don Horton responded to the Source's inquiries about the "eminent domain" question with this:
"The District's preference is, and has always been to negotiate property acquisitions in good faith. Like many special districts and government agencies in Oregon and elsewhere, the District has the legal authority to use the power of Eminent Domain (aka, condemnation). However, to date the District has never exercised the use of condemnation. Only the Board can authorize condemnation proceedings and there has been no direction from them to use Eminent Domain for this or any other segment of the Deschutes River Trail."
The park board's proposed bridge site is located on federal land, and Horton says they've received a signed Letter of Intent with the landowner to "negotiate for the trail right-of-way needed on his property to connect with the bridge." Horton says BPRD has considered using eminent domain only once, during the completion of the Larkspur Trail, and was able to successfully negotiate with the landowner before the case when to condemnation court.
When HB 2027 went up for a vote in the House, Rep. Knute Buehler (R-Bend) voted in favor. Members of his staff took part in the early development of the bill, he said.
"We worked on it some and it looked like it was going to be difficult and would take a lot of time, so we didn't pursue it," Buehler told the Source Weekly May 5. "Rep. Whisnant was the one who had a particular interest, so he's the one who did most of the work on it."
In response to public comments that have pointed out the discrepancy between allowing large homes along the river and meanwhile, a concern about environmental protections over the river, Buehler said, "I think it's a very different issue with regards to homes which have been there for decades versus a bridge across the pristine area of the Deschutes that's in a wild and scenic area. I think it's really apples and oranges."
Whisnant, meanwhile, says he's not categorically against the completion of the trail.
"I was asked to sponsor this bill by constituents and I agreed to do just that—not to prevent a trail," Whisnant wrote in his legislative update.
Competing Survey Results
Meanwhile, a number of surveys and public input inquiries paint a varying picture about what the public wants.
Oregon Parks & Rec formed an advisory committee, the Upper Deschutes Advisory Group, to survey stakeholders and the public, starting last October. Over a six-month period, the UDAG reports it met with BPRD, Deschutes County, the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, Deschutes National Forest and neighborhood associations in the area surrounding the bridge, as well as holding public meetings through April 5.
On May 5, Community Solutions of Central Oregon presented a Final Report on the findings of the UDAG to Oregon Parks & Rec. The report states that during public meetings, 10 of 88 responding attendees "openly advocated for a pedestrian bridge for reasons that included recreation access, convenience, transportation and fire safety."
But in crowdsourced polls, the report says more than 81 percent of respondents advocated for "increased waterway protections" or "emphasized limiting further development in and around State Scenic Waterway corridor in general, subsegment 4G (the proposed bridge site) specifically." Of the property owners within one mile of subsegment 4G, 25 percent "identified concerns for private property protections in the form of suggested rules prohibiting trespassing, limiting recreational trails."
BPRD, meanwhile, shared the initial results of a survey of 532 park district residents, conducted by the ETC Institute on behalf of BPRD in April. The final results will be available in June, but ETC shared some results at the BPRD board meeting May 2.
One question was aimed at gauging "public support for building a bridge across the Deschutes River at the South UGB," Horton told the Source Weekly.
"Results of the survey indicated that 72 percent of the respondents were "very supportive" or "somewhat supportive" and 14 percent were "not supportive" or "not at all supportive" of completing a footbridge crossing over the Deschutes River. Fifteen percent were neutral," Horton told us. When ETC cross-tabulated the results against which quadrant of the city survey respondents lived in, Horton said, there was "no significant difference in the level of support."