SALEM — An overflow crowd of activists, politicians, lobbyists and residents of Bend were in the Capitol on Thursday for a public hearing on a bill to bar a bridge over the Deschutes River near the southern city limit.
The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee heard arguments for and against House Bill 4029, the second attempt to bar the bridge in the past two sessions. More than a dozen people testified, while dozens more submitted written statements.
The high-speed testimony — each person was given two minutes with a sharp buzzer sounding at 90 seconds — pitted Oregon Wild and other environmental groups, along with some river-area homeowners against the city of Bend, the Bend Park & Recreation District, and recreation advocates.
After the hearing, committee chairman, Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, was heard telling a fellow lawmaker that the bill was “Gene Whisnant’s retirement gift.”
Whisnant, R-Sunriver, whose district is adjacent to the proposed bridge site, has announced he will retire at the end of his current term.
Supporters of the bill said the ban was needed to maintain the natural beauty and important wildlife habitats in the area. Opponents of the bill said a bridge would offer recreational opportunities to the community and save the area from unmanaged trails.
During testimony, Bend Mayor Pro Tem Sally Russell said she and Deschutes County Commissioner Tammy Baney wanted to convene a local panel to deal with the issue in depth. Both Russell and Baney oppose the bill.
Erik Fernandez, the Bend-based representative of Oregon Wild, a statewide environmental group spearheading the current anti-bridge effort, said the bill was needed to ensure that an important space for nature wasn’t irrevocably lost.
“This place is home to bald eagles, golden eagles, Oregon spotted frog — big one these days — deer, elk, this is a big wildlife area,” Fernandez said. “These are environmental safeguards — we only have one Deschutes River.”
Jim Clinton, former mayor of Bend, said the bill was necessary because he said Bend Park & Recreation had overstepped its authority by impinging on land regulated by the state and federal government.
“What we have is a local agency gone rogue,” Clinton said.
Russell said the citizens’ panel she and Baney could organize would be the best way forward.
“We are opposed to this because we feel the better way to move through this discussion is on the local level,” Russell said.
The new bill is a committee bill, meaning it has no named sponsor other than the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, and bill opponent Larry Waters testified that he found the practice unsavory.
“This is a local issue,” Waters said. “There is no jurisdiction or justification for trying to turn it over to state or federal government. It is especially offensive in that there is no sponsor for the bill. Anonymous bills should not be allowed.”
Later, Clem explained that “this is the process” and said he would take responsibility for the bill.
“This is the committee that introduced the bill, so in terms of anonymity, this is us,” Clem said. “I am the chair, so I ask the committee whether they are OK introducing the bill. So, if you want someone to blame, it’s me.”
Later, Clem gaveled the hearing over, but his microphone was not switched off.
On the Oregon Legislature Information Service live feed of the hearing, Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, a committee member, asks “Mr. Chairman, what would happen if this bill just went away?” Clem was clearly heard to answer “Gene Whisnant’s retirement gift.” When the video of the hearing was posted online for replay, Witt’s question is heard, but Clem’s response is cut off.
Whisnant shepherded a similar bill onto the legislative agenda last year using “gut-and-stuff,” a term in Salem for a bill that is stripped of all of its content, then amended to include a new bill. After passing the House, the bill died in a Senate committee.
Whisnant has said he is not involved in the new version of the bridge bill. Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, who is running for governor, and whose district is adjacent to the bridge site, supported the bill in 2017. Buehler has said he is not involved in the new bill.
J.L. Wilson, a veteran lobbyist hired by Oregon Wild, said he didn’t know what Clem meant by the Whisnant remark.
“Gene was invested in the effort last time,” Wilson said. “He’s less involved in this one.”
Wilson said Whisnant had not taken an active role, in part because he was a lightning rod for criticism by bridge advocates in 2017.
“I think he had a rough go, that he felt he had been mistreated,” Wilson said.
Wilson said he expected the bill would clear Clem’s committee, then go to the House Ways & Means Committee for a look at its state financial impact.
“I think it will advance,” Wilson said. “Not sure it will get to the finish line. But Oregon Wild put together this coalition together to pass a bill.”
The hearing came after two meetings Wednesday in which the bridge bill was a topic of discussion.
The Deschutes County Commission hasn’t decided whether to take a stance on the bill, but at least two of the three commissioners bristled at the idea of the state government ruling on what they see as a local planning issue.
“It’s a shame that this is being defined in state law because it very much is local,” board Chairman Tony DeBone said Wednesday. “It’s a point on the map.”
Five Bend city councilors voted late Wednesday night to send a letter and have Russell testify on the city’s behalf. Councilors Nathan Boddie and Barb Campbell voted against opposing it.
Boddie, who is running for the state House seat Buehler is giving up to run for governor, said the city was getting into “dangerous territory” by engaging in the bridge discussion. It should be between the park district and the state, he said.
But Mayor Casey Roats said he didn’t think the state should be able to ban bridge crossings and questioned whether the portion of river the bridge would cross is actually a wild and scenic river.
“I simply just don’t like an outright ban on all crossings from here up to Sunriver or wherever it might be,” Roats said. “A wild and scenic river doesn’t have a residential subdevelopment built to modern urban standards right next to it. This has the city of Bend right on top of it.”
—Warner reported from Salem, Shumway from Bend.
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