Mill Creek youth camp turned down ... for now

The standing-room-only crowd listened intently as the county planners listed their reasons for denying the permit application for the proposed church camp
August 23, 2001 -- The format for Wednesday night's county planning commission meeting was simple; no public testimony would be taken. When the proposed Mill Creek youth church camp application was taken up, it was the planner's turn to discuss the pros and cons of the application.
   For more than two years, public hearings have been held on the application. Time and again, the project developer Larry Syme and his attorneys and experts presented their plans. And time and again, opponent's experts offered testimony on why the Mill Creek area is the wrong place for a youth church camp.
   The youth camp proposal has a history in Crook County that goes back a number of years. The application for a permit was made by a Baptist church program called Outreach Northwest. The plan was to build on part of the 193-acre Steins Ranch about 17 miles northeast of Prineville.
   With piles of information, books, photos and graphs presented by each side, the hours of recorded testimony and other information provided them, the commissioners last month took time to study all aspects of the application. Last night it was up to the commissioners to decide whether to approve or deny the application.
   From the beginning, it was clear that the applicants had not convinced the planners that the 43-acre site was where a youth camp should be located. Even after having successfully lobbying the state legislature into changing the law concerning youth camps in forest zoned land, the question of the Mill Creek site being appropriate still had to be answered.
   Starting their deliberations, each commissioner listed the issues with the project that concerned him or her the most. By the time each had spoken, the combined list of issues totaled more that 14 points.
   Early in the discussion, Chet Petersen, chairman of the planning commission, pointed out that such items as sewer and water availability were items best left up to the state Department of Environmental Quality.
   "If the DEQ won't sign off on it (the project), it isn't going to happen," he said when mentioning the proposed sewer system. "While it is a concern, it's not up to us to decide."
   Many other concerns were, however. These ranged from whether the camp was, as defined under state law, self contained or not; the number of overnight camping participants; the need for more detailed site plan, to fire safety and the age of the campers the camp would serve.
   The self contained issue centered on the youth camp being a non-profit entity. Under regulations developed when the legislature changed the law concerning campgrounds located in forest zoning, only non-profit organizations are allowed. Testimony from Outreach Northwest at one point mentioned a number of complementary for-profit entities that would operate out of the camp. That, the commissioners said was not acceptable.
   Commissioner Terry Hild said he had a concern about the number of facilities that were being planned for the site. The topography, he pointed out, of the land is steep mountainous land. While under the state regulations, golf courses, tennis courts would not be allowed in this type of project, horse corrals, volleyball court and a swimming pool would be. "I would like to know how much area is going to have to be leveled off for those facilities." Hild went on to say he had visions of heavy equipment being used to make what he called, "an adverse effect" on the property.
   Fire safety was another issue. "I would suspect that what is listed in the OAR's (Oregon Administrative Regulations) requirements is the minimums and I would like to see more. This is minimum requirements for fire safety and if we are going to put society's most precious asset up there, I think we have to have more."
   Access to the proposed campgrounds was another issue raised by the commissioners. Having only one way in and one way out is not acceptable, the planners believed.
   Commissioner Jerry Brummer pointed out that "since I have been on the commission, we've always asked for two ways in and two ways out. I see one road in with a circle to come out."
   A secondary escape route should be included, other commissioners mentioned. Petersen also questioned how the projected 240 or more young campers would be evacuated in case of a fire. "There should be vehicles on site to be able to get all the kids out reasonably quickly."
   Another concern centered on the impacts on neighbors to the proposed campground. Weberg pointed out that the county's comprehensive plan cites livability as a criteria, "so I think we do have some responsibility to the neighbors," he added.
   Petersen said he had driven up Mill Creek recently and had noticed signs along the way that say, don't put the camp here. "If the OAR, state law, says this camp can exist, what rights do those neighbors closest to the camp have? I think we need to discuss what their rights are."
   The question about why the permit would allow 244 days of camping during the year was also brought up. "The camp's purpose is to provide camping opportunity for youth under the age of 21, that is what it says," Petersen said. "I question then why we need 244 days of operation. Most of these young people will be in school for the best part of the year. So except for adult use, and this is limited under the OAR, why would you need to allow for 244 days of operation?"
   Before voting on the permit application, the commissioners all agreed that having a youth camp in Crook County would be a good thing. However they nearly all agreed that this was not the best site for one. Unanimously the planning commission voted to deny the application.
   Petersen said in closing that the denial is certain not to be the end of it. A final decision will be taken up at the commission's next meeting, scheduled for Sept. 13, and then it is certain that the matter will be appealed to the county court.