Desler’s next court date in August

Dan Desler is anticipating pleading not guilty to all charges connected to a criminal air pollution case.

He appeared in Linn County Circuit Court on May 27 for arraignment, but the proceeding was set over to Aug. 3 to allow for an extensive discovery period, during which attorneys will gather and assess evidence in the case. Desler did not enter a plea.

The Aug. 3 date is essentially a status conference, said Michael Vergamini, Desler’s attorney. “That will give the parties, defense and state, time to review the discovery.”

It also allows the defense to review the case and decide whether any of the charges should be pleaded differently than anticipated, Vergamini said. At this point, Desler anticipates pleading not guilty on all counts, he said.

Desler is charged with seven counts of first-degree air pollution, three counts of second-degree air pollution, providing false information to the Department of Environmental Quality and recklessly endangering another.

The charges stem from the demolition of old mill buildings, formerly Willamette Industries, along the south side of the 1800 block of Tamarack Street between May 2007 and February 2008. The state alleges that Desler demolished the buildings without abating asbestos within the building structures.

After leaving the courtroom, he reasserted his innocence.

“I reported it,” Desler said. “The contractor said he suspected that material was in there. I told him to get off the machine and off the property. I called two different organizations to confirm its presence.

“They stopped work right then.”

Desler had ribbon labeled “asbestos” put up around the partially demolished buildings, he said, and gates were closed and locked or welded around the site.

Desler said he started to clean up the site, but he had to stop when funding ran out.

“Mr. Desler’s not a polluter,” Vergamini said. “One of the things he does there is recycle material. It helps the environment. That’s always been the objective.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is planning to abate the site as early as this month, but Vergamini said, with the criminal case, that may have to be postponed.

“Essentially everything comes to a halt,” Vergamini said. “One thing we have to be careful of is not modifying the property in any way or spoiling evidence. We’re just trying to be very careful that we don’t do anything that would be perceived as tampering. We don’t know how tied up everything is right now.”

The criminal case also could affect several civil lawsuits, including a $1.3 million suit brought by Umpqua Bank, against Desler and his companies as well as development of the property.

Vergamini believes Desler’s case against the DEQ seeking a declaratory judgment on piles of cardboard and plastic fibers on the same property, at the north end of 24th Avenue, will probably continue forward.

“We’ve talked about it with DEQ,” he said. “There’s been some negotiations.”

The DEQ earlier this year fined Desler, Western Renewable Resources and Western States Land Reliance Trust $192,000 for operating a solid waste disposal site without a permit. Desler says the material is inventory, while the DEQ has classified it as waste. That is the question Desler wants a judge to decide.

Desler, a Eugene developer, came to Sweet Home a decade ago and began working on plans to develop around 750 acres along the north edge of Sweet Home, from 18th Avenue to Wiley Creek. He developed a master plan for the development, and after splitting with his partner, continued to manage about 420 acres on the west end of the master plan as managing trustee of Western States Land Reliance Trust, the property owner.

The master plan includes a variety of commercial and residential development with a recreation-tourism component.

“I’m not giving up on this,” Desler said. “I truly wanted to see lost timber industry jobs replaced by the master plan.”

The project would create roughly 350 tourism-based jobs based on studies, he said.