City Council discusses the shutoff, crime and speeding

Benny Westcott

The Sweet Home City Council slate was packed Tuesday, Sept. 13, with topics ranging from local crime solutions to speeding to the recent public safety power shutoffs that left much of the city in the dark.

The Sept. 9-10 outage impacted roughly 5,000 customers in the city for up to 20 hours as Pacific Power and Consumers Power Inc. sought to thwart fire danger from east winds and low humidity forecast for that weekend in the Oregon Cascades.

“I want to commend our city staff, police department and public works,” Sweet Home Mayor Greg Mahler said. “They did a phenomenal job and were very proactive during the city’s blackout and what we went through. The American Red Cross was on standby, and an emergency proclamation was ready to go just in case.”

Councilor Lisa Gourley complimented Mahler on his conduct.

“Through this crisis, when I called my mayor to see what was going on and how we were doing,” she said, “he just knew it all and had been on the phone all day.”

“The event that we just went through fortunately had minimal impact on our community,” Lynn added. “But really it was, in my mind, a great test or warmup for what could potentially happen in the future. I don’t feel that this is going to be an anomaly, but rather that more and more of these are going to be coming our direction.”

Lynn commended the Sweet Home School District for “stepping up” and rewiring their fuel tanks for an emergency generator, which was available to the Sweet Home Fire & Ambulance District.

Public Works Director Greg Springman said the city contacted Jimco Electrical Contracting in Lebanon, which provided generators for City Hall, the bypass station at the city’s water treatment plant and then a larger one for the plant itself. He noted that the city lost power at least twice at its communications tower, where the police department and Public Works hope to make improvements. He also believed something similar to Pacific Power’s temporary community resource center at Sankey Park could be established in the future at the Jim Riggs Community Center, calling the latter “a great benefit to the city of Sweet Home.”

“This is going to be the new norm,” he added. “We’re going to get into emergency situations, and people are going to be without power for a period of time.”

The council also discussed local crime in a conversation instigated by Sweet Home Real Estate Restorations owner Josh Victor, who relayed stories of multiple incidents at some of his properties.

The real estate developer described break-ins and property destruction at three of his locations, resulting in some $10,000 worth of damages. He also alleged that someone in a recreational vehicle was responsible for breaking windows in one of his buildings and added that he’s chased off squatters “many times.”

“We’re going to have to start doing something in our town,” he said. “Google says our crime rate is three times the national average. If we’re talking about trying to get businesses in and trying to develop, this is really hindering. So, I feel like we need to start bringing that conversation up or having committees set or something to start dealing with it.

“These aren’t just homeless people,” he continued. “These are people that are terrorizing and causing damage and crime, not just somebody that’s not able to stay in a house.”

He posited that city action could make an impact in lowering the number of RVs parked on streets.

“I think the RV situation or the camping situation, with people staying in their cars on the streets or anywhere in public, can be addressed through the city by making an ordinance that there is no camping or RV parking overnight,” he said.

“We’re dealing with RVs more and more, and we’re dealing with them on a daily basis,” Police Chief Jeff Lynn said. “It’s an extremely difficult topic. Citywide, we’d love all the input possible to try to come up with solutions that will work. It’s not a topic that’s going to go away, but it is a topic that has to rise to the top of the pile because of the impact.”

He mentioned some of the difficulties the city faces.

“For a lot of the individuals associated with the RVs, a lot of the repercussions we normally have don’t necessarily impact them the way it would other individuals,” he said. “Many of these issues are interrelated or connected. The socioeconomic aspect of some of our community plays a role, but what even plays a bigger role is that unfortunately there is a lack of consequences for a number of things. That actually far exceeds what Sweet Home can do.”

“The risk of incarceration is extremely low for most of these ordinance violations or misdemeanor crimes,” he continued. “The deterrence aspect is waning in Oregon. And that’s just the reality of it.”

“We’ve been talking about doing ordinances, but then it comes down to the enforcement side of it,” Mayor Greg Mahler said. “And then when it gets to the court system, nothing happens to them. And we don’t have control of the court system.”

According to Sweet Home’s current ordinance, vehicles may park in a public right of way for 48 hours before moving elsewhere.

“The problem is, you don’t have to move it very far to get out of that,” Community and Economic Development Director Blair Larsen said. “All you have to do is move it a car length away, and it’s still technically moved.”

Some cities have stricter ordinances.

“There are cities that have ordinances that specifically say you can’t park an RV on a public right of way, and one gives an exception for the owner of the adjoining property,” Larsen said. “We can find examples of those. The main question is where those stand right now in light of the Ninth Circuit Court rulings and such, so we probably want to keep an eye on what’s going on in the legal landscape.”

“We have one code enforcement officer,” Mahler added, “and he’s already stretched thin. But we’ve had discussions with him about what we can do in the enforcement department.”

While towing is an option, Lynn noted that each RV costs the city about $5,000.

“We need to do a lot of deep-diving on this issue,” Councilor Lisa Gourley said, “to see what we can do to help people, but at the same time not be taken advantage of and meet all of the needs of our community.”

Some of said community felt something needed to be done about speeding. Vince Adams said he saw people driving 45 mph through the school zone on Mountain View Road, where he lives.

“It’s really crazy on my road,” said Ames Creek Road resident Janice Study. “People drive down that road at 45 or 50 miles an hour. It’s right down from the school. What happened to 20 mph when school’s in session and 25 mph when it’s residential? It happens daily. It’s horrible. My husband and I have to yell at them all the time to slow down.”

“I’ve had people go by me on Main Street 55 in a 25, and I think to myself, ‘Where the heck’s the officer?'” Mahler added, pinpointing Mountain View Road, Elm Street, Long Street and Main Street as problem areas, likening them to “an Indy 500 racetrack.”

“To the defense of the police department, you guys have been very understaffed,” Mahler continued. “They’re still not fully staffed, because you have to get officers through the academy. They don’t have certain capabilities until they get the sign off of the academy. When you take away the people in the academy from how many officers you have right now, it puts it pretty lean. Sweet Home’s stretched so big that it’s hard to get (officers) from point A to point B and keep controls.”

“I don’t like making excuses,” Lynn said, “but we are stretched thin. Most nights, we end up with one officer on for hours at a time.”

In other meeting action:

n The council voted unanimously to conduct a first and second reading of an ordinance annexing an approximately 174,896-square-foot (3.97-acre) property at 1118 47th Ave. in the City of Sweet Home’s urban growth boundary, into the city limits.

The ordinance also changes the zoning of the property from Linn County’s Urban Growth Area-Farm/Forest Zone to the City of Sweet Home’s Low Density Residential (R-1) Zone.

Applicant Katherine Thrash said at the Sept. 1 Sweet Home Planning Commission meeting that she purchased the property in 1995 and the septic has failed.

“I need city services for the sewer and the water,” she explained. “With the drought conditions, my water suffers this time of year. The well just can’t keep up. Everybody in the area is having that problem, but everybody else is in the city.”

Thrash added that the property’s previous owner fought to keep it out of the city, something to which she was not averse.

“I’m very excited to get it in the city and have reliable water and sewer,” she said.

A third and final reading of the ordinance is set for the Sept. 27 council meeting.

In other action, the council:

— Conducted a second reading, by title only, of a legislative amendment updating the city’s development code, and voted unanimously to hold a third and final reading of the amendment by title only at its next meeting on Sept. 27.

Community and Economic Development Director Blair Larsen said at the Aug. 23 council meeting that the city has worked for the last couple of years on an overhaul of the code. The planning commission worked at length to revise it, eventually approving it to go before the city council.

“They reviewed every word,” Larsen said of the planning commission. “We read it all aloud and discussed it. That took approximately a year.”

He added that several modifications and adjustments were made during that time.

The city council originally directed the group to consider changes and updates to the current land-use documents. After auditing the material, a consulting team was hired to prepare a new one. Working with city staff and the planning commission, the result of this effort created a document combining titles 16 (Land Divisions and Lot Adjustments) and 17 (Zoning), as well as the Flood Hazard and Historic Resources provisions from Title 15, under a single, unified document, the “City of Sweet Home Development Code.”

Larsen said that the new document used the current one’s core materials.

“Major changes revolve around the reorganization of material to improve usability for the staff and public and to incorporate recent changes in state law that apply, or will apply, in Sweet Home,” he said.

— Voted unanimously to authorize Sweet Home Public Library Services Director Megan Dazey to attend the Library Journal Design Institute in Missoula, Mont., after the Sweet Home location was selected as one of the focus libraries to have a breakout session there to discuss its potential new design with architects.

“We hope to come out of the session with a design that could be used for the next phase of our new library plan,” Dazey wrote in a request for council action.

The total cost to the city to send her to the conference is expected to be $600.

— Voted unanimously to block 14th Avenue from Kalmia Street to the south side of the intersection at Grape Street from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1, for the 16th annual Harvest Festival, which will take place at Sankey Park. The road will be closed to vehicular traffic, but residential access will be allowed.

— Voted unanimously that the city recommend an Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) license be granted to Midway Market, a convenience store at 3239 Hwy. 20. The market is changing hands, and its new owner, Raj Agasti, applied for an “off-premises” liquor license, which allows beer and wine to be sold for off-premises consumption only.