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Youth camp plan heard for the third time

Once again, the developers and their opponents argued their sides on whether or not a conditional use permit allowing a church youth camp in the Mill Creek area should be approved
For the third time in as many years, the Crook County Planning Commission listened last night as applicants for a permit to build a youth camp and their opponents tried to make their case.
   Early this year, Outreach Northwest filed for a conditional use permit for a youth church to be built in the Mill Creek area, northeast of Prineville. Following a public hearing on the application, in order to respond to a number of concerns raised by people living in the Mill Creek area as well as others, the application was withdrawn. This week, with new designs and answers to many of those concerns in hand, the new application was presented.
   The youth camp proposal has a history in Crook County that goes back a number of years. Originally made by a Lebanon, Oregon, Baptist church program called Outreach Northwest, the proposal was for a youth camp facility to be located on the north side of Highway 26 about four miles west of the Wheeler County line. That was in 1995. Although that request was approved, the camp was not constructed and the permit expired.
   Early in 1999, the applicant filed for a permit to build again, this time on a 42 acre section of the 193-acre Steins Ranch. That request was denied by the planning commission for a number of reasons. These included non-compliance with a 250 foot setback requirement, road safety, traffic impacts, sewage disposal and fire protection, among others.
   The applicants indicated that all the issues had been addressed and remedied and refiled their application in January, 2001. The planners agreed to hear the new application and scheduled the public hearing for this week.
   The proposed site for the camp is located about seven miles from the highway on Mill Creek Road on a small portion of the 200 acre Stein Pillar Herford Ranch. If approved and constructed, the camp is to provide recreational opportunities for children. The maximum number allowed would be less than 350 at any one time.
   Before opening the meeting for the two sides to make their presentations, Chet Petersen, chairman of the county planning commission, set the stage. The question, he stated, was not whether the project was good or bad, it had nothing to do with religion, either. "The question," he said, "is whether it is in compliance with county ordinance and state law. Is the project suitable for the location."
   With each side being allowed one hour to make their presentation, the hearing began with the applicant. Over the next few hours, attorneys for each side introduced their expert witnesses. Each authority began with a recitation of their education and experience before informing the commission why one aspect of the church camp was either the perfect solution to a problem or why that solution was unworkable.
   Dan Van Vactor, Bend attorney representing those opposing having the youth camp in that area, started off by saying his clients have nothing against such camps. But "It)s the wrong place," he said. "Not a bad concept, actually it is a good concept. It's just in the wrong place."
   As part of the proposal, the applicant has worked a deal with the county roadmaster to improve a portion of Mill Creek Road. Using US Forest Service funds, Roadmaster Norm Thompson has agreed to blacktop a section of the road that passes through the camp's location.
   Outreach Northwest has also agreed to improve a mile of the road leading up to the paved segment.
   Van Vactor used that part of the proposal to prove his point about it being the wrong location for a camp. "There is one way in and one way out (Mill Creek Road). The applicant says they will improve that road, but what about from the end of pavement out to their mile? And the pavement, that is to come in four or five years if the Forest Service can afford it. But we all know about federal budgets."
   The consultant hired by Outreach Northwest, Bill Zelenka, told the commissioners that there are three key areas of concern that they have to consider. Many of the issues are not, he informed the commissioners, their concern. Waste water discharge is a state Department of Environmental Quality issue, he explained, just as the water system for the camp up to approval of the state water resource Department, and fire protection is a problem for the state Department of Forestry to sign off on. Those issues are out of the planning commission's purview, he said.
   Before the evening was over, though fire protection, water sources and sewage disposal were all discussed by the various experts; one side explaining with charts, exhibits and photos why the proposed systems would work and the other equally expert authority explaining why it would not do the job.
   After each side's witnesses completed their individual hour of testimony, with the applicant being given an additional 30 minutes to respond to the opponents, the meeting was brought to a halt.
   Written testimony from the public will be accepted up to 5 p.m. August 6. With all of the books of information presented by each side, the hours of recorded testimony and other information provided them, the commissioners will take a few days to study the information before meeting once again on the application. Petersen said that the meeting scheduled for the evening of Aug. 15, the commissioners will begin the debate on the question. Hopefully, he said, a decision will be made that evening.
   That probably won't be the end of things, though. Both sides have indicated that they will appeal the planning commission's decision. Such an appeal would be presented to the county court. Even that isn)t expected to be the final decision. Further appeals are sure to find their way to the state Land Use Board of Appeals. Expectations are that ultimately, the matter will end up in court.
   ... a couple of strange things happened on the way to the church camp hearing
   The proposed youth camp project has apparently been fought on many levels - or at least attempts have been made to move the battle into the political arena.
   The problem started with a Jan. 17 letter sent by Dan Van Vactor, the attorney representing opponents to the camp, to the county court requesting the youth camp issue be placed on the county court agenda. Responding to the January letter, County Judge Scott Cooper reminded the attorney that the matter is pending before the county planning commission and legally, the court could not comment on the issue.
   In July, the attorney wrote to Commissioner Jerry Crafton asking him to comment on a land use rule that was then before the state Land Conservation and Development Commission. The rule is related to the creation of a 250-foot safe-harbor setback for church camps.
   Responding to that letter, County Judge Cooper added teeth to his reply. Reiterating it would be inappropriate for the county court to involve itself while the land-use matter is pending, Cooper called the act of contacting any member of the court unethical; saying "If you contact any member of the court again on this matter, I will contact the state bar and request ethical sanctions against you."
   The battle took another twist a little later in the month.
   Earlier in July, the attorney representing a group of property owners who have been fighting the youth camp proposal along with a man hired to "determine the Forest Service's boundaries" were charged with criminal trespassing. According to the Crook County Sheriff's report, on July 2, the two men, Daniel Van Vactor and Earl Nichols, were seen walking through the church camp property. Nicols was identified in the police report as a retired Forest Service employee. Larry Syme of Outreach Northwest, developer of proposed camp, filed the complaint with the sheriff's office the next day and said he would press trespassing charges. The report indicated that Van Vactor had taken Nicols onto the property, which the deputy noted had been clearly marked with no trespassing signs, in order to locate Forest Service boundaries. The report on the incident has been passed on to the county District Attorney's office for review.