An amendment introduced in Salem by Rep. Gene Whisnant could block efforts to complete the Deschutes River Trail between Sunriver and Tumalo, Bend Park & Recreation District Director Don Horton said Monday.
At a Monday meeting of the park district board called on short notice, the board unanimously agreed to formally oppose the amendment to House Bill 2027 introduced last week by Whisnant, a Sunriver Republican, in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.
The amendment, tacked onto a bill that would authorize lottery funds for water storage projects, would forbid the construction of any bridge across the Deschutes River in an area upstream of Bend where the district is looking to connect trails on the east side of the river with Forest Service trails on the river’s western banks.
“It will put an end to connecting the Deschutes River Trail,” Horton said at Monday’s meeting.
Bridges are already prohibited in this section of the river canyon, which is part of the Upper Deschutes River Scenic Waterway, a state designation that restricts development beyond the development codes enforced by the county. Among other restrictions, houses and other structures must be set back at least 100 feet from the river or 20 feet from the rimrock and painted to minimize their visual impact.
The park district has been working with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department seeking a rule change that would lift the restriction on bridge construction. The amendment submitted by Whisnant would prohibit the state parks department from granting an exception for the park district’s proposed footbridge.
At Monday’s meeting, members of the park district board expressed dismay that Whisnant’s amendment was submitted without first consulting or advising the park district. Board chairman Ted Schoenborn said Whisnant’s amendment would throw away 15 to 20 years of planning for the completion of the trail and a bridge.
Board members Craig Chenoweth and Ellen Grover said Whisnant’s amendment ignores extensive public support for a bridge and trail extension and cuts off the possibility of a wider discussion of the issue.
“This is dangerously close to special interest legislation,” Grover said.
Reached Monday afternoon, Whisnant said he’d talked to both Horton and Schoenborn on the phone during the less than two hours that had passed since the conclusion of the district board’s meeting, but would support his amendment in a committee vote scheduled for Tuesday. Bills and amendments that do not make it out of committee by the end of the day Tuesday are effectively dead for the remainder of the 2017 legislative session, and Whisnant pointed to these short timelines to explain why he did not notify the park district.
Whisnant said opponents of the bridge who approached him believe the park district will find a way to build a bridge, regardless of whether the state parks department approves a rule change. He said his amendment would prevent the district from moving ahead without sufficient input from those living nearby.
At a hearing last week, members of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee heard testimony opposing a bridge, substantially from individuals living on or near the river near the possible bridge sites.
At past public meetings, bridge opponents have said a bridge is not needed to complete the Deschutes River Trail, and that the district could utilize existing trails outside of the canyon on the west side of the river to connect currently separate segments.
Whisnant said he’s not necessarily opposed to a bridge elsewhere or the completion of the Deschutes River Trail, noting he supported the completion of a leg of the trail between Sunriver and Benham Falls. He said he’d be willing to reverse course on supporting his amendment if circumstances change.
“If we can make everyone happy, that’s the best of all worlds,” he said.
Assuming the bill and amendment are approved by the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, it would require a hearing by the joint Ways and Means Committee, and the vote by the full House and Senate — as well as the signature of Gov. Kate Brown — to become law.
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