News for those who live, work and play in the Santiam Canyon

Santiam Canyon recovery planning grinds forward

Reporter for The Canyon Weekly

An overflow crowd of 50 people gathered in the Detroit Community Center on Saturday, Nov. 5, for a discussion of recovery efforts from the 2020 wildfires.

Two hours later (30 minutes longer than the session was scheduled to last) people still were talking about the issues. That’s the good news. The bad news is that people still have more questions than answers. Many Santiam Canyon residents are frustrated. And some have gone beyond frustration. 

The meeting was jointly moderated by Chris Eppley, director of Marion County community services, and Sarah Reich, a project director with EcoNorthwest, a Portland-based economic consulting firm. The goal of the grant-funded process is to have a recovery plan ready to present to the Marion County Board of Commissioners by spring of 2023. 

Clearly, a lot of work needs to be done to get a plan to the board on that timeline.

Key questions that need to be answered include:

• Can some sort of leadership group be established to shepherd the process?

• Can stakeholders such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management be persuaded to participate?

• Are public-private partnerships a possible route to a successful plan?

• And what, ultimately, does a successful plan even look like? 

“I believe for the plan to be successfully implemented, there will have to be a continued discussion with an advisory group or leadership council made up of the various recovery partners,” Eppley told The Canyon Weekly. 

“But ultimately the local jurisdictions will need to take ownership of the specific recovery efforts in their areas with support where it makes sense.”

Saturday’s audience was sprinkled with local leaders, including Detroit Mayor Jim Trett and four Detroit councilors, Gates acting Mayor Pat Rahm, Marion county emergency manager Kathleen Silva, McRae Carmichael of the Mid-Willamette Valley Council of Governments, Jacob Bentz of Santiam Hospital’s Service Integration Team and representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Idanha-Detroit Rural Fire Protection District.

Rahm of Gates compared the region’s challenges to those of the characters in Joseph Heller’s classic novel Catch-22. Although generally concerned with the chaos of war, the Catch-22 concept goes beyond that to cover any tricky problem, no-win or absurd situation.

Rahm noted that one of the goals of the recovery plan is to boost outdoor recreation.

“But tourism in Gates is city people floating by on the river,” he said. “We don’t get any benefit from it.”

Rahm also noted that economic development requires growth, which requires more housing, which is difficult to achieve in Gates because of lot size mandates driven by septic system requirements.

The North Santiam Sewer Authority, working with $50 million in federal relief funds, is planning a four-city, two-phase sewer system that would serve Mill City, Gates, Detroit and Idanha. The project is years away, perhaps 2026 for the Mill City-Gates phase and 2027 or beyond for the Detroit-Idanha piece.

In the meantime, $2 million of the federal money is available for grants for homeowners whose septic systems were damaged by the fires. 

The catch is, though, that the funds only are available to property owners who already have built. Undeveloped lots don’t count. Which means growth remains stalled.

One resident expressed frustration that he might have to spend $35,000 on a septic system only to have it become obsolete when the sewer system goes on line.

And what would all of the new housing be for, one audience member asked, given how much of the current housing stock is in vacation homes and that most of the jobs are seasonal.

“Detroit loses money on tourism,” said Detroit Councilor Michele Tesdal. “Heavy vehicles come into town, they chew up our roads and people use our restrooms. We want tourists to come, but we have no businesses. We need help.”

Tesdal also expressed concerns about the region’s capacity. 

“We don’t have a captain of the ship,” she said. “We’re all volunteers. And we’re all tired.” 

One audience member noted that conversations about how to work on local challenges used to take place over breakfast. But the restaurants burned down.

There were signs of hope, though. Audience member Steve Galbraith praised the county decision to streamline permits for those rebuilding on the same footprint as before. Detroit Councilor Tim Luke spoke of the opportunities that are out there, particularly in the Detroit Flats area and possible marina dredging. Carmichael of the mid-valley COG said her agency is ready to help with the septic grants. 

And John Parmenter, who runs an outdoor adventure firm that does business in the region, said “there are a lot of people on the outside looking in who want to help.” 

But the clock is ticking, and spring of 2023 isn’t that far away.

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