Another taxpayer funded bridge to nowhere

By Ben Van Dyke,
Yamhill County Ag PAC

This week, taxpayers learned more about a county’s effort to build a bridge to nowhere using millions in state and county taxpayer dollars, including State ConnectOregon grant dollars.

For years, high level Yamhill County officials have strongly advocated to develop a multi-million-dollar pedestrian trail on an abandoned railbed between the cities of Gaston and McMinnville. Similar to the failed experiment in Benton County, Yamhill County chose to purchase this corridor using state and federal tax dollars fully aware of the risks that the trail may not be lawful because it bisects farmland that is protected under Oregon’s land use system.

This week, public records were disclosed on the Yamhill County website that showed failed state oversight over taxpayer dollars and separately, provided clues of extraordinary efforts by high level county officials to coordinate a campaign that has cost Yamhill County taxpayers millions.

In 2018, over the objections of those that live next to the former rail corridor, by a vote of 2-1 the Yamhill County Board of Commissioners approved moving forward with the development of nearly 3 miles of trail. Shortly thereafter, neighboring landowners filed a lawsuit successfully arguing that the County’s multi-million-dollar trail violated Oregon’s land use planning laws that protect farmland and farming. Yet these high-level county officials continued pushing the project forward, spending public money they knew the county would have to repay if the bet failed. The bet failed in 2018, and again in 2019 and 2020 and the County was prohibited from developing the rail corridor.

Despite the County’s inability to gain land use approval (later admitted by ODOT in an email), on January 16, 2020 the County staff convinced a majority (two) of the sitting Board of Commissioners a to authorize spending roughly $1 million in ODOT grants and $2 million county taxpayer dollars to start constructing a trail bridge along the corridor without the necessary land use approval that would allow for use as a public recreational trail. Meaning, the roughly $3 million bridge would be built on an abandoned railway that the public was not authorized to use. Let me explain.

Originally, the County’s grant application made it clear that the bridge was to be used by the public for pedestrian and recreation use. When the county failed to get land use approval, instead of stopping, the county violated that agreement and proceeded with building a bridge where again, neighboring landowners and taxpayer advocates filed another lawsuit to stop construction on an illegal bridge that taxpayers would be on the hook for. The county’s lawyers told LUBA that the bridge was for County use only, not for the trail and not for public use at all. But that characterization violated the terms and conditions of ODOT’s grant (and other environmental laws).

This new argument that the county advanced to justify the start of trail construction without land use approval appeared to be part of an elaborate plan to ensure future County Commissions would be boxed in to continue to spend millions to develop the trail – essentially putting future commissions on the hook for more extravagant spending. The strategy backfired at LUBA and cost county taxpayers nearly $50,000 in attorney fees to the adjoining landowners. The taxpayers now have a $1 million liability to repay to the state, plus a $1.4 million liability to the state and federal government, millions in lost county taxpayer revenue, a $50,000 attorney fee award and nothing to show for it. And no bridge to show for it.

But why would ODOT participate in that plan and reimburse the County for expenses that both violated the terms of the grant agreement and lacked required land use approval? In short, it isn’t clear.

The emails appear to indicate that at one-point ODOT and Oregon Department of Justice were coordinating with the County to defeat the neighboring landowners who were concerned about the impact the trail would have on their homes, businesses, and farming operations. However, that support appeared to take a sharp turn in mid-June 2020 where ODOT threatened to recover grant funds stating “*** the Project’s successful completion—namely, the opening of the Bridge to the public as part of the Trail—is highly questionable if not improbable***.” Erik Havig, ODOT.

That did not stop staff and one County Commissioner, who in one email states his intention to be Governor someday, from doubling down on his efforts and lobbying state and federal politicians to help him. But the reason for his requests became more dire because county voters, by a relatively wide-margin, voted for a new County Commissioner that publicly opposed this controversial trail and its expensive price tag. As a result, in a matter of months, a majority of the County Commission would oppose the trail and spending more money on a project that even ODOT came to realize was “improbable”.

Instead of stopping the drain on taxpayer dollars, this time, Commissioner Kulla with the help of County staff, including the County’s administrator and attorney, were attempting to transfer the purchased rail corridor to private trail advocates before the new elected commission was seated. Commissioner Kulla even admits to state officials that the county can take the “financial hit” if taxpayers have to reimburse the state and federal government for breaching the contract. Despite this effort, no organizations came forward willing to risk their donations on the same trail that the state and county were willing to risk taxpayer dollars on.

The new County Commission, including Chair Starrett and Commissioner Berschauer, have stopped spending resources on the trail, including bridge construction. This does not mean the story ends there because emails show that county staff are hoping to simply wait out the current board of commissioners until they get a more friendly, pro-trail commission. It is time for the State to stop enabling this bad behavior and stop contributing to this waste in taxpayer dollars.