Reincarnation may or may not happen with people, but it certainly does with legislation. Bills that die in the Oregon House or Senate at the end of one session often pop back up, in slightly different form, at the beginning of the next. Do not be surprised, then, if lawmakers next year consider scenic waterway legislation that would kill a long-planned pedestrian bridge connecting densely populated southwest Bend with national forest land on the opposite side of the Deschutes River.
In fact, given recent events, expect it.
The proposed bridge became the surprise controversy of the 2017 legislative session when Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, launched a sneak attack in April through a maneuver known as a “gut and stuff,” in which a bill is hollowed out and filled with new language. The result of Whisnant’s attack, HB 2027, would have prohibited the bridge (which, in the interest of full disclosure, is near my neighborhood). It sailed through the House before bogging down in the Senate, where it finally received serious scrutiny.
The proposal’s claim to legitimacy is the Oregon Scenic Waterways Act, which regulates activity along the Deschutes River at the location the Bend Park & Recreation District has chosen for a pedestrian and bicycle crossing. Among the act’s more unusual restrictions along this section of river is one aimed at bridges, including footbridges. The anti-bridge provision was adopted by administrative rule about 20 years ago for reasons that are now unclear, yet it remains.
Fortunately, the bridge restriction is, by design, only a speed bump. Riverside property owners who’d like to build near a regulated section of river must notify the state of their plans. If the state decides the impacts of a proposed project can’t be mitigated, it can deny it. But that denial remains in effect for only one year, a period the state and property owner may use to resolve their differences. If they can’t, the property owner may proceed as planned. This balancing act preserves the rights of property owners, who otherwise might suffer on a grand scale the sort of property “taking” to which Oregon voters have expressed vehement opposition.
Supporters of Whisnant’s sneak attack — predominantly the wealthy owners of riverside homes near the bridge site — argued disingenuously that his bill was entirely consistent with the scenic waterways act. In fact, the bill violated a core principle of the act, which attempts to balance preservation and development.
While HB 2027 died, recent events suggest that reincarnation may be in the works.
In late November, Oregon Wild and other environmental groups arranged for Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, to visit the site of the proposed bridge. Dembrow is chair of the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, where HB 2027 ran into bad luck earlier this year. Representatives from other public agencies were invited, too, including the U.S. Forest Service, which manages land along the Deschutes to which a bridge would provide access. Notably not invited: the Bend Park & Recreation District, according to Executive Director Don Horton.
Representatives of Oregon Wild declined to respond to several emails and phone calls for comment last week. But, explained Dembrow via email last week, “my sense is that members of the Central Oregon conservation community are working on a legislative proposal that would involve wild and scenic rivers.” Debrow says he’s “not interested in a one-off change affecting a single site.” Still, the most obvious reason to bring legislators to this spot is to use it as an example of what might be “fixed” by broad waterway legislation.
Another tea leaf that begs to be read: Oregon Wild engaged Salem lobbyist J.L. Wilson in November, according to state filings. The work Wilson is supposed to do for Oregon Wild isn’t clear, as Wilson, too, declined to respond to repeated calls and emails last week. It’s worth noting, though, that Wilson, who’s known as a business lobbyist, was engaged in March by the Upper Deschutes Conservation Council — a fancy name given to themselves by opponents of the bridge, led by Portland money manager and riverside property owner Tim Phillips. Wilson and the Upper Deschutes Conservation Council severed their ties in October, just weeks before Wilson took on Oregon Wild as a client, according to the state’s lobbying database. Phillips declined to respond to requests for comment, as well.
Here’s a scenario to consider. A bill will emerge in next year’s short session, or perhaps in 2019, that will make some changes to the scenic waterways act and, in doing so, deliver bad news to supporters of Bend’s proposed bridge. Because it will be championed by environmental groups rather than a Sunriver Republican, it will have greater appeal to Democratic lawmakers, who dominate the Legislature.
Meanwhile, odds are local Republicans will either remain silent or support it. Whisnant sponsored its predecessor, HB 2027. And Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, whose constituents have the most to gain from a bridge, has already supported a ban. Incidentally, leading bridge opponent Phillips is a Republican power player and a generous Buehler campaign contributor.
Bend’s best ally may be Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend. But on the theory that every little bit helps, the Bend City Council should consider making a formal expression of support for the bridge. The city is in the early stages of a transportation-planning effort designed, in part, to reduce car trips. A pedestrian bridge over the Deschutes would allow people in densely populated neighborhoods to cross conveniently onto Forest Service land without using fossil fuels or packing more vehicles on Bend’s congested roads. City Council should do this before a bill appears, however, at which point it could be too late.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.