Trouble on Water Lane

Will Alpine residents run out of water with new development?

For Southern Benton County resident Garrick Balsly, concern about his water supply and the health of his land started nearly five years ago when his widowed neighbor received a postcard in the mail.

The postcard offered timber-cutting services from the Veneta-based Oregon Land Company and bore the seal of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative — a seal that Oregon Land Company did not have permission to use, as EW reported in 2013.

Helen Davidson responded to the postcard because she was worried about the trees on her 40-acre property becoming a fire hazard. After a timber cruise of the property, the buyers convinced her to sell them the land.

According to Davidson’s daughter, Carmen Keyser, “they weren’t as above-board as they could have been, but they didn’t break any rules.”

Within months of the sale, the large timber that blanketed the property was nearly all razed. A freshly paved road, handful of spindly oaks, large brush pile and an oil drum are pretty much all that remains on the once forested property. 

The land is set to be developed as five residential lots after plans to create seven lots on the property were withdrawn following backlash from neighboring property owners.

New developments like these are raising concern among rural communities about how their land may look in the future and how new development will affect their access to water. In order to address these issues, rural residents in southern Benton County are organizing to have a bigger voice in county land-use decisions. 

Even with the abundant rainfall on the Coast Range foothill community, Alpine residents are seeing their wells go dry in summer. Alpine is just a few minutes west of Monroe and about 20 miles south of Corvallis. People in the area depend on wells, and having a well go dry can mean spending thousands of dollars to drill a new well that may or may not provide for the future needs of their land and property.

Todd Jarvis, director of the federally designated Institute for Water and Watersheds at Oregon State University, says groundwater problems in the Alpine area are not a new concern. Because of the geology of the area, “it has been known to have low availability for years,” he says. “Water levels will decline when you start to pump.”

The spotty reputation of the buyers and developers — the McDougal Brothers Co., who are long associated with the Oregon Land Company — adds to the concerns of community members.

Collectively the McDougal brothers, Norman and Melvin, along with their frequent business partner Greg Demers, have a well-documented history of questionable business tactics and contested developments, including the clearcut and mining of Parvin Butte; fires at the Pilot Rock lumber dump (which earned Demers a nearly $800,000 fine from a state environmental agency); and an attempted water speculation scheme on the McKenzie River. 

The brothers’ history of buying property from senior citizens through proxies and then doing clearcuts on their land was documented in an InvestigateWest article published by EW last April.

Since the purchase of the land by the McDougal Brothers and subsequent clearcut, Balsly has challenged a series of proposed developments on the property, with the support of LandWatch Lane County and the Goal One Coalition of Eugene. The state Land Use Board of Appeals has twice sided with Balsly and remanded the case back to the Benton County Supervisors for further consideration.

While the clearcut and the process of fighting development proposals have caused a great deal of frustration for Balsly and other neighbors, there has been a silver lining to the situation.

“It was the Davidson Hill case that sparked us to organize,” says George Wisner, an Alpine resident.

Pushed forward by Wisner and Balsly, Alpine activated the previously defunct Southern Benton County Citizen Advisory Committee. According to a county press release, the committee gives rural residents the ability “… to improve communications between county officials and those living in that part of the county, as well as create greater opportunities for input into Planning Commission and Board of Commissioners actions that impact them.”

Of the six Citizen Advisory Committees for rural areas of Benton County, only three are currently active.

Wisner says the committee gives Alpine residents “a forum to bring issues to.”

“We get notifications for everything,” Wisner says. “Issues come up that we would never have known about without this system. A lot of county matters don’t require public participation.”

Because the CAC can raise awareness about planned developments and other county projects, it gives Alpine the ability to settle disputes as a community without having to go to court, according to Wisner.

 “Because the platform is legally recognized by the county, when we make recommendations the county commissioners take them seriously,” Wisner says.

While the details of land use planning and zoning applications vary from dull to downright boring, they are important to people relying on wells for water in an area with well-known water issues. 

One of the original complaints Balsly brought to the planning commission regarded the failure of the county to require the developers to do a dry-season well test. The commissioners found that the county planning office had indeed failed to follow county rules requiring wells to be tested in dry months.

Benton County code requires dry-season well tests for new developments to show they have sufficient water access during summer and early fall.

While a hydrologist hired by the McDougal brothers dismissed groundwater concerns in front of the commission, citing the annual rainfall in the area, residents in the area have noticed a trend of wells running dry during the summer. 

During public testimony before the Benton County commissioners in September 2015, multiple residents voiced their concerns.

Richard Saylor, who lives less than half a mile from the proposed development and recently had to drill a second well, says, “people in the area are scared about their water supply.” Saylor told commissioners that he has been studying well logs in the area for 20 years and that wells on slopes like the Davidson property are “seasonally challenged.”

Jarvis, of the Institute for Water and Watersheds, says the geology of the area makes it such that the aquifer does not store much water despite heavy rainfall. Because of the fractured rock formations, which he compared to broken glass, two wells within 20 feet of each other could have totally different water availability.

This creates a tough situation for well owners who are out to prove that their neighbors have negatively affected their groundwater, according to Jarvis. “When it comes to well level monitoring,” he says, “the burden is on the property owner to prove they have been affected.”

Even if landowners have documented declines in their wells, the process for remediation is difficult. Jarvis says that watermasters, local officials responsible for mediating water disputes, are overburdened in their workload.

However, Jarvis says that if the community is willing to ask for help, his institute along with students and researchers at OSU would like to provide technical assistance to help the community cope with water storage issues. Jarvis says programs aimed at artificially recharging wells through the capture and diversion of water in the rainy season could help keep water flowing all year long in Alpine.

Jarvis recommends that citizens form an “aquifer community” to organize, educate and solve water issues in their community.

“Water is important to everyone,” Jarvis says, who adds that organizing an aquifer community is an opportunity for Alpine residents “to set their differences aside and come together to protect this essential resource.”

In the case of the Davidson Hill development, it’s unlikely that participants will set their differences aside and find a mutually agreeable solution. A proposed lot line adjustment on the property, that would only reconfigure the existing five lots, is in an open comment period before the Benton County Planning Commission until May 23. 

Not everyone in the community is against the development. Davidson’s daughter, Carmen Keyser, lives on a property adjacent to the proposed development. She says the developers have done a good job with the development so far. Keyser points out that having more nice houses in the neighborhood could improve the property value of surrounding homes, including her own.

Balsly, however, remains dedicated to fighting the development and is currently challenging the latest lot line adjustment proposal before the Benton County Planning Commission.

Representatives for the McDougals dismissed his ongoing challenges to the development. At a public hearing on April 18, Bill Kloos, a Eugene attorney representing the McDougals, referred to the current objections to the lot line adjustments as a waste of time and said that is was just a part of the game that Lane County LandWatch plays to stop development. 

“It might be a game for them because they are already rich,” Balsly says. “For them, it’s just another drop in the bucket; for me, this is about having access to water where I live.”