LaPine using nuisance law to improve its image

The wood carver along U.S. 97 has moved his roadside business

By Monicia Warner / The Bulletin

People traveling U.S. Highway 97 into La Pine over the past few years might recall seeing intricate wood carvings and pieces of scrap wood and metal along a stretch of land on the east side of the road.

The property’s longtime tenant, Ken Medenbach — known locally as the wood carver — recently vacated the property, and its owners, Art and Lorraine Willett, are excavating the land and letting a few people salvage what’s left.

“We just want to clean it up and go back to trying to find a clean tenant,” Lorraine Willett said Tuesday.

This change in scenery is one result of the city of La Pine’s new nuisance ordinance. It penalizes owners of abandoned or deteriorating buildings, those who have sanitation problems, and it also covers solid waste and septic issues. It took effect Friday.

Rick Allen, La Pine’s interim city manager, said the city is starting to ramp up enforcement efforts to beautify the community and make it more appealing to potential residents.

“It’s good for economic development,” Allen said. “This has an impact on your business, your quality of life. ... We want the community to look better.”

Art and Lorraine Willett said the wood carver was leasing the property for his Chainsaw Creations business, but then expanded and began to create decorative cabins.

“He was taking in scraps to make these cabins and he got way in over his head,” Lorraine Willett said.

Deschutes County code enforcement contacted the Willetts several months ago concerning an awning on the property. When the Willetts asked the wood carver to clean up the mess, it never happened.

“It didn’t seem to get better, it only got worse; we reached an agreement where he had to be off there,” Lorraine Willett said.

Medenbach, 61, said he complied with code enforcement and took down the awning, but he needed all the other materials on the property for his business.

“My kind of work, I’ve got to have lots of material around to build this stuff with,” he said. “The city was getting upset about that; I started to put up a fence.”

Medenbach said his business started to suffer and he ended up two months behind on rent. Both sides went to court and negotiated a settlement in which the Willetts would take the financial hit, as long as Medenbach moved off the property.

According to Tim Grundeman, a Deschutes County code enforcement technician, the county has always handled building code and septic violations in La Pine. The county is negotiating an intergovernmental agreement with the city of La Pine to handle cases involving solid waste.

“What the city would like to do, and they’ve asked us to work with them, they would like to contract with our code enforcement staff to enforce their new nuisance codes,” said Nick Lelack, Deschutes County community development director. “We provided the draft to Rick (Allen) a few weeks ago, so we’re waiting for the city’s response.”

Agreement discussions center around the county providing solid waste code enforcement services in exchange for an office for the county’s building permit staff in La Pine City Hall. County officials think the costs will offset each other.

County code also dictates where residents are legally allowed to live. According to Allen, one of the larger code violations in La Pine involves people living in camp trailers.

“With the economy and for various reasons, people obviously live in them,” he said. “It’s not legal under county code; they don’t have two exits, you can’t get out a window. They’re not hooked to a septic or water system.”

There’s also the case of a property alongside the railroad with 300 full garbage sacks stuffed into a trailer. After researching the ownership, Allen said the property value had depreciated from $100,000 to $15,000 and the owners owe four years of property taxes.

“That’s the process that I go through to find out who’s living there, who owns it, are the taxes current,” Allen said. “Those are all the indicators of where this will go.”

He said La Pine and the county are taking an educational approach to code enforcement; the aim is to give people time to comply with county code before issuing penalties.

“We’re gonna start cleaning them up on a case-by-case basis,” Allen said. “We’re not gonna worry about every little thing out there, by any means. But some things are pretty obvious, kind of over the top, and if there are people complaining, we’re going to look into them as we can.”

— Reporter: 541-633-2117, mwarner@bendbulletin.com