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Trans Cascadia Excursions will not reapply to build campground in Westfir

Westfir honors their covered bridge with a miniature version on display. City Hall is in the Background. Herald photo

By JOY KINGSBURY/The Herald — Struggling to keep emotions in check, former Westfir mayor Melody Cornelius delivered a scathing, finger-shaking scolding to the Westfir City Council at Monday night’s meeting.

She singled out two councilors in particular, Katherine Bishop and Deretta Huey, citing their opposition to the proposed campground and other businesses planned by Blair Banker and Nick Gibson of Trans Cascadia Excursions related to biking and outdoor recreation, which is Trans Cascadia’s stock in trade.  Cornelius made reference to the fact that councilors Bishop and Huey opposed the projects from the beginning by going door to door making unfavorable remarks to friends, neighbors, and community in an attempt to derail Trans Cascadia’s plan.

At Westfir’s September 11 meeting, it was noted that two major hearings were set for the same date, September 28: the Mill Site development hearing and Trans Cascadia’s application, which would expire if not extended by that same date.

A new October 16 hearing date was set for Trans Cascadia’s hearing on their extension and Blair Banker, project promoter and developer attending by Zoom, agreed to that date.  He also asked that councilors Bishop and Huey recuse themselves from the vote and that he would kindly ask them not to speak to the issue for that reason.

Later in that meeting when the matter of the new extended time for Trans Cascadia’s date came up for vote, councilors Bishop, Huey and Kelly Packard voted against extending application time for Trans Cascadia, meaning that they would have to reapply and go through everything all again.  Since then, Trans Cascadia has announced that they will not reapply the application, and it is not certain that Trans Cascadia will continue to operate in Westfir in its present location.

The Westfir Planning Commission submitted a letter to the City Attorney questioning whether recusal was in order by the two councilors who opposed the Trans Cascadia’s project by going door to door voicing their disapproval of the project.

Councilor Huey said, “If they wanted a recusal, they should ask for it before the vote.”

Mayor D’Lynn Williams said that it was her fault for not asking about questions and concerns.  There was a question about who should pay for the attorney’s opinion, city or applicant?

Councilor Edward Johnstone said, “I do think city should pay for it and hope we are not on the hook for something from not having asked before.”

Mayor Williams agreed although she said legal fees “are getting pretty ugly” this year.  Council voted to pay the fee.

In the Citizen Comment Section on Agenda Items, Cornelius read a statement aimed at Jim (Gunny) McKee, Westfir’s volunteer fire chief, who had petitioned the city for a stipend for his services and out of pocket expenses by giving him water and sewer services at no charge.  She also objected to him sitting with council members during the meeting, since he is not on council.  She pointed out that Police and Fire can only be paid from the general fund. She asked council if all volunteers, including councilors, should have water and sewer services granted them.

Cornelius went on to question the sustainability of a Westfir Fire Department since it was not feasible in the past.

“Why is McKee not welcome back to the Oakridge Fire Department?  Have his references been checked?”

She suggested that Westfir be more careful about spending tax dollars.  McKee asked to respond, stressing that he feels it is an important need for the community to have its own fire response and that he spends cooperative time with the Oakridge Fire Chief.  He is proposing to “provide the safest and most efficient method of protecting Westfir against fire.”

Williams, the mayor, interrupted the discourse since McKee and Cornelius were talking over one another. “We are going to continue this discussion at another time,” Williams said.

McKee continued with his report. “The fire contract with Oakridge needs to be ironed out,” he said. “They are taking huge advantage of us with what they are charging us.  If something happens to our fire engine, Westfir must pay.  The wear and tear and repairs are up to us.”

He said he is meeting with the Oregon State Fire Marshal and getting closer to provisional status for the department lifted to full time. “Training is coming along,” he said.

He ended his report with the comment, “I want to go on record saying I strongly disagree with not being able to respond to the comments made tonight.”

Mayor Williams proposed that the matter be dropped until “We can air the proposal with the entire community in a meeting.”

In The Matter of Concern to Citizens Not On the Agenda, Cornelius, the former mayor, voiced exasperation about loose dogs, a homeless camp, half-dressed transients and drug manufacturers in Hemlock, all unaddressed for two years.  She also asked what the attorney decided in the matter of the conflict-of-interest issue.

She said to McKee, who was sitting with Council, “I don’t think you are part of Council.”

McKee bridled, “Are you talking to me? It’s the second time you have called me out.”

Councilor Packard said, “Take it slowly and decide what we need to address. Deep breaths.”

Williams decided to take the conversation to agenda item, Under Matters of Concern To The Council. Cornelius agreed to address only council with her comments.  She went on to say, “City has seen the growth of two major shuttle companies, Cog Wild and Trans Casdcadia, respectable family-owned businesses oriented toward serving hundreds if not thousands of volunteer hours as stewards of our local forests.  A beautiful, well-thought-out proposal that would bring commerce, jobs, the list of possibilities goes on. Westfir’s youth could have opportunities for jobs.”

She mentioned the opposition by two councilors (who remained un-named).  Councilor Huey called for “Point of Order,” and the argument devolved into chaos.   Cornelius said the council “Should be ashamed.” Her parting shot was, “I just don’t want to be here.”

Nick Gibson, Trans Cascadia proprietor, was in attendance to enlighten council about a volunteer camping outing and work party with about 40 people, a community of family — some campers, some local.

Mayor Williams reminded council that regulations to govern this activity no longer apply since “Trans Cascadia no longer has an application to do a project. Since they are not asking for money or a permit, there is nothing to regulate”.

Councilor Bishop expressed concern about loose dogs.  Gibson assured her that would not happen. “Dogs will be on leash,” he said.

Nick Gibson, owner of Trans-Cascadia addressed council.  “Council should be very disappointed in themselves as you sit in your homes tonight.  There was no objectivity, it is very disappointing,” and he told council he thinks they blew it.  “A huge opportunity missed for younger people to make a living and be creative and positive. I’m not here to grind on people but hope it is something you think about for a long time.”

In Matters of Concern to the Council Not on Agenda, Councilor Johnstone said he was “unsurprised” at the response from the City Attorney on the questions of recusal and is very concerned that the city may be at significant liability if the vote stands as it went through.  The Attorney’s answer to both questions in her reply was, “Absolutely!  Both of the anticipated Planning Commission decisions affected applicants in a quasi-judicial matter. Both Commissioners have vocally and publicly opposed the application. Bias is deemed to influence the entire decision-making body. These Commissioners should not participate in the Planning Commissions upcoming decisions.”

Mayor Williams told the council that she received a message from Blair Banker that he would not renew the Trans Cascadia application.

Councilor Packard said, “We are not stopping them from doing business, they are just not going to do the buildout.  Maybe they will resubmit in some time in the future.”

Councilor Johnstone said, “We have now made ourselves business unfriendly. Tourist-related business has been ejected from town, so good luck to get anyone to start a business on that land, and I don’t know where else they would do it.  It is important not to put the city in the position where we can get sued.”

Johnstone told the group that he would like to see all future projects completely funded prior to being put into action. “Let’s be realistic. We do not have the tax base to address any of our concerns,” he said. He went on to say they should apply for grants and have the money in place first.

Councilor Bishop said, “It was really inappropriate for Melody to get so hostile. She could not really keep herself in good form.  She is looking for someone to pin it on. When we were learning about Trans Cascadia’s plan, we thought there was a void of nobody going out to share information with the community.  At the first meeting I had to recuse myself.  She can come in to a building like this and berate people and get really hostile.   It’s a small community, and we are all trying to do our best to contribute to our community in a positive way.”  She went on to say this behavior needs a push back.

Johnstone said, “I totally get what you say.” He went on to say that Cornelius was not technically out of line and that she “expressed herself with passion.”

In other business, citizen Chris Cribbish asked for help with an exorbitant $1,700 water bill due to a slow leak he had no control over. He acted immediately after he found out and repairs have been made. Council opted to charge him $152.  Public Works Director Bobby Archer, will check the repair.

Councilor Huey reported on the December Bridge Lighting and gave a rundown on the celebration and the entertainment she has lined out for that time, including Fire Dancers.

Mayor Williams, adjourned the meeting.

City Council meetings are open to the public and take place each first Monday of the month at 5:30 p.m. at City Hall. There are alternative methods of attending posted on the City website.  A sign-up sheet for public comment is available.

Joy Kingsbury is an Oakridge resident and regular contributor to The Herald.
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