Shelter: Homeless no more

Benny Westcott

Duck Hollow neighborhood residents who expressed opposition to a proposed homeless facility near their properties during Jan. 25-26 meetings at Sweet Home City Hall got their wish at a Tuesday, Feb. 1 special session, when the City Council elected to move those plans to another location.

The council voted 6-1 to allow the Lebanon-based Family Resource Center (FAC) to begin constructing a “managed outreach and community resource facility” on the northeast corner of Sweet Home Public Works at 1400 24th Avenue.

The motion, made by Councilor Angelita Sanchez, asserted that this would be an interim solution until the city received more clarifying information from Linn County commissioners and the Portland-based Coles & Betts Environmental Consulting, LLC, about the environmental condition of the “knife property” (named for its shape), a parcel of Public Works-adjacent land that once was part of the Weyerhaeuser/Willamette Industries mill site.

Many councilors have said that the county-owned “knife property” would be their top location for a long-term facility. However, hopes of moving forward stalled in December 2021 after county officials determined that an environmental assessment was needed to mitigate any adverse environmental impacts from the now-defunct mill.

Councilor Susan Coleman, the sole dissent- er to the Public Works Yard plan, told The New Era after the meeting that she voted against the motion “because I have not seen any plans or drawings on how the area would accommodate the needs outlined for this project.”

The vote to establish a homeless facility at the Yard came after a number of citizens argued against placing it on city-owned property behind City Hall. Several members of the Duck Hollow Homeowners Association, the neighborhood closest to that location, voiced their opposition at a Jan. 25 City Council meeting and again at a community meeting the following day.

By all accounts, their protests were heard.

“I’ve been literally beat up for the last two weeks about this property behind me,” Mayor Greg Mahler said Feb. 1. “I’ve got pages of testimony from folks who don’t want it. I’ve got neighborhoods that aren’t even a part of the [Duck Hollow] HOA that are coming at my throat.”

Builder Ernie Carpenter, who’s currently constructing 40 units near City Hall and has submitted preliminary plans for 80 more, added even more pressure Jan. 25 when he threatened to stop.

“I can’t afford to lose a potential investor and developer from coming and building multi-family housing, and having him pull out of the city,” Sanchez said. “I can’t keep getting calls from people who are terrified that we are going to bring in sexual predators and violent criminals.”

Mahler explained that a temporary facility could be moved more easily from the Public Works to the “knife property” rather than from behind City Hall. He was also concerned that a quick-fix solution involving the latter would become more long-term.

“I would have a hard time doing something twice,” he said. “And from my experience, when you do something temporary, it always seems to end up being permanent. And I don’t like that potential poss-ibility.”

Mahler mentioned that the city could lose out on development beyond Carpenter’s building if it pursued the City Hall option.

“There has been discussion for a potential medical facility going next door to City Hall,” he said. “If they back out, and then you have the landowner back out, that is not a good thing.”

In the meantime, before Conestoga huts for the homeless are erected at the Public Works Yard, Mahler said the former City Hall could serve as a shelter for people currently living in its parking lot.

Councilor Dave Trask considered it a reasonable temporary solution.

“They’re already there,” he said of the homeless. “And if we move them from where they are, into the building, they’ll have heat, air conditioning and a place that’s dry. And we’re not going to spend tens of thousands of dollars [to build a facility behind the location].”

Of the “knife property’s” long-term viability, he said, “It’s the place to go. It really is.”

But how soon it would become available remains unclear. The results of Coles & Betts’ “Phase 1” environmental site assessment for the “knife property,” made public in late January, revealed that “fill materials” such as wood and metal debris were found.

It also determined that the property may have been impacted by the mill’s spray booth and saw mill operations on the north side, noting that its surfaces and soils contained PCP and dioxin/furan releases in concentrations above Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s residential and urban residential direct contact “risk-based concentrations” (RBCs).

The report additionally found that an underground storage tank site 250 feet south reported gasoline-impacted soil left in place as well as impacted soil and groundwater, but it was unknown whether that contamination had migrated onto the “knife property.”

Furthermore, the report continued, operations of a former logging truck maintenance facility at the adjacent Public Works Yard have impacted surface and subsurface soils, as well as groundwater, with petroleum hydrocarbons.

Again, the study did “not adequately characterize” whether a release of those materials has extended or could extend onto the “knife property.”

It was recommended that areas with known or suspected contamination be fenced off, or “capped off,” with gravel, asphalt or clean dirt with landscaping before the site could be used for residential purposes.

Community and Economic Development Director Blair Larsen indicated that a “Phase 2” would “go further into determining exactly what contaminants are where, provide more detail and make it more clear what would need to be done to clean the site.”

A map produced last fall, and shown Feb. 1 to the councilors, envisions the county keeping a large part of the 8.02-acre “knife property” for a “Linn County RV Fill & Dump Site,” while a smaller portion went to the city for its homeless population.

According to Larsen, Linn County Commissioner Will Tucker told him after the “Phase 1” assessment that the county hoped to move forward with the RV dump station, and wanted Sweet Home to continue with the homeless facility plan for that property. Tucker reportedly told Larsen that the environmental report ruled, “There is contamination, but it can be addressed by capping it with gravel, and then you wouldn’t have a problem.”

“I don’t know if I agree with that, but that was the statement,” Larsen said to the council.

Larsen said he explained to Tucker that the city preferred to attain a prospective purchaser agreement (PPA) for the property before it was handed off. (A PPA is essentially an agreement between the DEQ and purchaser that protects the former from liability.) But Tucker reportedly said that the county wouldn’t want to, because that would take up to 18 months.

“There doesn’t seem to be a willingness on the county’s part to go through a process like that,” Larsen said.

In light of this, he recommended that “given the liability associated with that property,” the city should not take ownership unless a PPA or a conditional “no further action” (NFA) designation makes it clear what can be done, as well as any liability an owner would face.

“It’s a risk,” he said. “You could take it and end up having no problems, or you could take it and have millions of dollars worth of problems. It’s really unknown.”

Mahler agreed.

“I am not going to take even a 1 percent chance for potential liability,” he said. “I would have to have some assurance that there’s zero liability before I move forward. If somebody gets sick on that property, later down the road, and they come back and find any contamination, and we didn’t deal with it, and we’re the owners of that property, look out.”

Councilor Dylan Richards also agreed, saying, “I don’t think the city wants to get stuck with [the liability], because that’s just going to lead to more problems.”

Not every councilor expressed as much concern.

“I think that we should move forward,” Lisa Gourley said. “We’re not getting 10 acres or 100. It’s an acre.”

“If we cap it, we could probably use that for our homeless facility without a giant risk,” Sanchez said. “I’m just really excited about this assessment. Before we say no, we should probably hire [Coles & Betts] for ourselves, or an additional environmental consulting firm to get a second set of eyes and a recommendation, and I think we could probably move forward with a couple loads of gravel.”

But Mahler argued that the county was also concerned about liability, and looking to transfer that burden.

“For the last couple of years, the commissioners have been trying to give us this property,” he said. “One of the biggest concerns is the liability. They are trying to take the liability off their hands and give it to us.”

“We have been fighting over this for 12 years with the county,” Trask said, repeating the dozen-year total for emphasis. “And they have offered to give us the whole piece of property several times, so they wouldn’t have liability for any of that cleanup.”

While waiting for the “knife property” to become available, the city may have to begin moving homeless people into an incomplete facility at the Public Works Yard, despite the Community Health Committee’s recommendation that any facility be fully operational before accepting clients.

“The Community Health Committee wants the facility in place when they move the homeless into it,” Councilor Diane Gerson said. “That may not be realistic for us. They don’t want to move them twice, but if we put them behind City Hall, they are going to be moved twice. So if we begin the facility at the place where it’s going to be permanently, I believe, down by the Public Works Yard, on a smaller scale than what we planned, it may not solve all the problems, but it is a compromise.”

Public Works Director Greg Springman said his department had carved out a section for a potential temporary site at the Public Works Yard prior to looking at the area behind City Hall and the “knife property” as options for the center.

“There was room,” he said. “It’s not the same size [as the proposed full facilities], but it was worked out on paper and I believe it was enough for some type of use.”

Also at the Feb. 1 meeting, the council voted 5-2 to enter into an “Agreement for Services” contract with FAC for the facility. The agreement would be void if no lease was entered into; in other words, the contract is contingent upon the city finding available property where the FAC could execute its plan.

Gourley, who voted in favor of the agreement, said, “The FAC can do this with or without this lease. They can do it on any property that they acquire. It’s in our best interest to have an agreement with them.”

Sanchez, who with Richards opposed the agreement, said, “I am not really a fan of direct appointment, or whatever this is. I like sources sought for a competitive bid process. And I’m not exactly a fan of signing an agreement with people when we don’t know for sure that we can give them the land they are looking for. And then we’re in some sort of a contractual problem with damages due.”

Gourley stressed a desire to produce and act upon a plan, as the current camp affects the town’s “core” area around Long Street.

“There are residents there, and there are viable businesses that we need to look after that are trying to earn an income and do what’s right, and we can not abandon them,” she said.

Community Services Officer Sean Morgan estimated Feb. 3 that 35 homeless people lived in Sweet Home, adding, however, that the number fluctuates every few days. He added that his estimation could be lower than the reality.

“There are more surfing couches or crashed-in RVs or even tents that we don’t see easily,” he said.