Damascus burning question

Whether it's a neighbor's noisy farm animal or a cloud of smoke, who do you call in newest city?

DAMASCUS - The decision by the City Council to draft a nuisance order didn't sit well with residents Norm and Phyllis Quinsland, who moved to the area three years ago and feel that the hike in their tax bill since the city incorporated in 2004 has brought them little to no enforcement of codes.

So when they heard about the City Council's 4-2 vote Sept. 5 to pursue drafting a nuisance order prohibiting roosters on lots less than 2 acres because of a complaint about a noisy rooster, they were offended.

It's just a bird, they say. What about all the smoke from illegal backyard burning? And what about the regulations being broken and not enforced?

'It is obvious to me that polluting the air by burning piles of trash and garbage is a cherished Damascus value: a value ironically protected and encouraged by the fire district,' Phyllis wrote in an angry e-mail to Boring Fire District Chief Doug Branch on Sept. 19.

'We are surrounded by people who do this,' Phyllis said. 'It doesn't matter. And the reason it doesn't matter is because nobody will do anything about it - and everybody knows it.'

The city is currently operating under county codes - the same codes the area operated under before incorporating. The county codes are broad and cover dense urban areas as well as rural areas.

'They are not as specific as folks within a city might want,' said Damascus City Councilor John Hartsock. 'An example is the county doesn't have a tree ordinance, and we have had many people ask that we have one. Or there are those concerned about backyard burning within the city, and the county is very open on that issue.'

The city has an intergovernmental agreement with the Boring and Clackamas fire districts to provide services to Damascus residents. Residential burning season is from Oct. 1 to Dec. 15, and from March 1 to June 15. Burning before 8 a.m. and beyond two hours before sunset is prohibited by the Department of Environmental Services.

Despite these regulations, burning is a regular occurrence around their neighborhood, say the Quinslands, at all times of the day and year. Since May 21, they have called in six reports of smoke, either after legal burning hours or during summer months when burning was not allowed. Most recently, on Sept. 17, they said three separate illegal burns happened throughout the day.

Boring Fire District Chief Doug Branch said the normal response to a report of an illegal burn is for a duty officer to respond.

'We will extinguish the fire or ask them to extinguish the fire,' Branch said. 'If they are burning legal yard debris, then there's no other action taken.'

The fire district's biggest concern is life and safety issues, he said. 'Air quality is DEQ's responsibility. We try to educate people and enforce the burn regulations.'

Kim Priest, Clackamas County code compliance specialist, said often people are just unaware of the rules.

'Part of code enforcement is not only enforcing the codes, but educating the public, both the person in violation and the complainant, as to what the codes are,' she said.

So where does that leave residents like Norm and Phyllis, who say they experience a lack of enforcement when regulations are not followed?

Damascus is now officially a city, but it doesn't mean the people that have lived there for perhaps all their lives will change the way they've lived and use their property.

The city is in the process of developing its own codes. City Manager Dan Bartlett is working on identifying the elements of the code project. He's expected to make a presentation to the City Council in November. After a review process and public input, Hartsock said the city council plans to adopt the codes by March 2007.

Even after the city has adopted its own codes, enforcing fire regulations will continue to be a fire department issue.

'It would be nice if neighbors would just talk to each other,' Branch said. 'Rather than saying, 'Hey, your smoke is bothering me,' they call someone.'

The Quinslands say they do not believe in being what they call vigilantes.

'The fire department should take care of it. They disclaim any response to do so - they'll say that DEQ has to do something about it. It's a finger pointing game,' Norm said.

He's unhappy about the city's response to their complaints as well. 'If they're unwilling to do anything about today's zoning, today's burning, today's issues,' Norm said. 'Then in my opinion,' Phyllis added, 'they shouldn't be a city.'