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Acting up in Lake Oswego

Bob Lee's issues with the city have taken him to extremes in his civil disobedience
by: Vern Uyetake, Bob Lee’s disputes with the city of Lake Oswego recently earned him a trip to the Clackamas County Jail. But Lee’s antics, which include patrolling Yates Street with a shotgun, are also getting some results. His efforts partially prompted a recent paving job on Yates Street. Despite the progress, Lee is still frustrated that the asphalt sits two feet from the property lines of street-facing homes. Gravel will fill the gap.

If you ask Bob Lee, it was worth six hours in a county jail.

And though it isn't always clear where his dispute with the city of Lake Oswego started, or where it might end, everyone agrees it crested a certain peak on Friday, when Lee laid down in front of a paving truck on Yates Street and demanded to be arrested.

Prompted by a series of problems on the road, Lee's act of civil disobedience led to his first trip to jail in 50 years, the only other one involving alcohol and a junior high trip to the coast, according to Lee. Yet it's been almost as long since the city of Lake Oswego paved Yates Street - 42 years by Lee's count - and on Friday, the day the job was finally planned, the 66-year-old was determined the asphalt would come with curbs.

'He was sitting in the road in a chair when they showed up,' said Capt. Mike Hammons of the Lake Oswego Police. 'His intention was to be arrested.'

Hammons said police tried to avoid the arrest, and as the paving trucks started rolling, even had Lee on the side of the road talking calmly about his preference for curbs and gutters. But when police made a move to leave, Lee sought advice as to how he could get them to take him along. Ultimately, when he laid in the road in the path of an oncoming street paver, he got his wish. He was arrested for disorderly conduct in the second degree.

'I'm going after the publicity,' Lee said later.

And so he paid a visit to the Clackamas County Jail, a place where he said they take your shoes, take your fingerprints, take your money and 'you have no idea what time is.'

A narrow little road

On the surface, this neighborhood looks quiet enough. In its reach up a rocky bluff off Highway 43, Yates Street and the other short streets lining Laurel Street have little traffic, many trees and far fewer curbs and sidewalks.

Yet where Laurel meets Yates, certain eccentricities emerge. A sign below a legitimate one at Yates, the one that warns drivers of a dead end, was installed by Lee. It reads: 'Old dog. Young dog. Several stupid dogs. Please drive slowly.'

It's one of the few amenities Lee has added to the neighborhood over the years. More recently, he has enlisted the aid of a wooden silhouette in his campaign against the city, a neighborhood fixture he calls 'Woody,' on which he places placards by the side of the road, advertising a variety of grievances with city hall.

And though his list of complaints is long, chief among them on Friday was the paving job planned for Yates Street.

The project was to cover the pitted, decades-old road with new asphalt. Yet it only aimed to cover the asphalt already in place on Yates, one that's too narrow to meet adjoining property lines and requires a gravel shoulder. Neighbors were allowed to connect their driveways to the pavement for a fee. Nonpaying neighbors could fill in the gap with gravel.

In Lee's mind, the plan was a 'Mickey Mouse' operation falling far short of his standards for public service. He planned to protest the job and greeted construction crews first thing on Friday, seated in the middle of Yates Street.

'The thing that burns me is they didn't even bother to investigate what it was going to cost,' Lee said, to bridge the gap between the road and driveways and install curbs.

When a city employee suggested forming a local improvement district, a tool that allows neighbors to band together to pay for change, Lee said, 'I was so furious I could have paid for it.'

A history of problems

The showdown with the paving truck is just the latest in a long series of disputes between Lee and the city of Lake Oswego.

On a tour of the neighborhood, Lee points to houses where a lack of flood control has prompted first one neighbor and then another to funnel torrents of water into one another's basements. Water runs over these hills in quick streams, keeping many of the homes here dependent on sump pumps. Flood controls, along with roads, have gotten little attention over the years.

In protest, two of seven neighbors on Yates Street joined Lee in halting payments to the city's surface water utility last year. The fee is charged on the local water bill. Lee routinely scrawls 'Bill God' next to it as he notes his withholding of the roughly $15 bimonthly. The notation, he said, is because God provides better flood control than the city of Lake Oswego.

'I stopped paying my surface water and my maintenance charge because I've done more work and fixed more potholes than the city of Lake Oswego,' Lee said. 'The neighborhood is hot and this neighborhood doesn't get hot on anything. These are good people but they're getting screwed.'

While the Yates Street trio racked up about $750 in unpaid water fees, they also got the city's attention. City projects are slowly fixing problems on the street and, in a recent letter asking debtors to settle up, city officials wrote the 'protest has been noted' and was met with improvements to the road and surface water systems.

Josh Thomas, public information officer for the city of Lake Oswego, said repairs began with upgrades to the surface water system earlier this summer. New catch basins were added to Yates Street and the paving work followed soon after.

Yet in recent weeks, city maintenance crews and contractors still tangled with an irate Lee, who has barricaded the road, patrolled its end with a shotgun and, finally, laid down in front of the paving trucks.

'Apparently at first he wanted the surface water and storm drain improvements to handle runoff and the city provided that. And he wanted the street to be paved and the city provided that. And now, he wants curbs and gutters and the city is not willing to provide that,' Thomas said.

Thomas said the city does not typically provide curbs and gutters on unimproved roads and would not do so without input from other neighbors.

'A project like that cannot start with the assumption that all neighbors want to take part in that process … some neighborhoods have made it clear that they don't want curbs and gutters.'

Despite Lee's stance, Thomas said, other neighbors have responded positively to improvements made on Yates Street so far.

Spat settles

Judy Nichols, who lives on Yates Street, echoes some satisfaction with the summer's work. Like Lee, she said she is perplexed by the gap between the road and the driveways, especially when she thinks of her two young neighbors, ages 3 and 5, who will weather it on their tricycles.

But Nichols main concern has been flood control. She said she is waiting for rain to gauge how well the surface water improvements will work. She is hopeful they will keep Yates Street residents from having to use sump pumps, a practice that has sprayed more water around the neighborhood than, well, God.

'Everybody here on this side of the street is on the sump pump and all we do is pump it out to the other side,' she said, to neighbors and more sump pumps a block away.

As one of the three Yates Street residents who withheld surface water fees to prompt change, Nichols is for any progress but thinks protesting has come at the price of riling city officials. A recent letter from the city, the one telling her to pay up, came at 10:23 p.m., hand-delivered by police. Nichols said the delivery was dramatic for the $150 she owes.

'If the cops rang your doorbell at 10:23 p.m., what do you think?' she said. 'I thought it was unnecessary for them to deliver a letter like this late in the evening.'

With summer construction at an end, Nichols, Lee and one other neighbor now face aggressive fee collection from the city and the possible loss of water services. The last attempt to shut off Lee's water - which had him standing on the lawn in a towel, staving off utility workers with a bolt cutter - led to a minor cease fire during which the city agreed to keep water running while improvements were planned.

Now, Thomas said city officials will offer no guarantee of running taps on Yates Street if the bills aren't settled soon.

For Lee, his problems with the city are likely to continue. His outstanding surface water fees top $450 and he still wants the wall-to-wall asphalt and the curbs. Lee also has a possible lawsuit against the city stemming from a fall. He tripped in one of the test wells for the surface water project and broke a tooth on Yates Street.

Four days after his release from the Clackamas County Jail, Lee also got a visit from police. They ticketed him for having an abandoned car on his property, one that used to belong to his mother but has sat idle for seven years.

'I was going to fix it up,' he said.

But now Lee is fired up about the ticket. Instead of fixing the car, he's getting ideas about another kind of protest. He's thinking about turning the car into a planter and parking it at the foot of his lawn. He wants to put it right where the curb ought to be, just to make a point.