How a past Oregon cult is haunting Damascus

Oregon community wrestling with city incorporation laws 30 years after Rajneeshee

Damascus Mayor Steve Spinnett prepares to hang a campaign sign in favor of Measure 3-448, a comprehensive land-use plan that would end the stalemate in the rural city. Regional planners are depending on Damascus capacity. (Portland Tribune/Jaime Valdez)
Damascus Mayor Steve Spinnett prepares to hang a campaign sign in favor of Measure 3-448, a comprehensive land-use plan that would end the stalemate in the rural city. Regional planners are depending on Damascus capacity. (Portland Tribune/Jaime Valdez)

DAMASCUS, Ore. (The Tribune) — What does a 1980s religious cult in Eastern Oregon have to do with the legal battles broiling 30 years later in Damascus?

More than you might expect.

Oregon land-use expert Ed Sullivan was an attorney for Rajneeshpuram, a theocratic city formed by the 2,000 followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in 1981. An odd moment in Oregon’s history, the city sprang up practically overnight on The Big Muddy Ranch near the Warm Springs Reservation. It lasted for four years before imploding socially and being dismantled by the state on the grounds that it was, as argued by then-Attorney General Dave Frohnmeyer, an “impermissible fusion of religion and government.”

Now a teacher at several university law schools and a city attorney for three cities, Sullivan says the experience made the Oregon Legislature re-examine its incorporation laws and make them more strict.

In 1983, ORS 197.175 was implemented, requiring cities to pass a comprehensive land-use plan within four years — a deadline Damascus blew through six years ago. Lawmakers also implemented a requirement (ORS 221.035) in 1989 that any potential must city complete an economic feasibility study.

Through these combined efforts, the Legislature decided “it ought to be more difficult to incorporate a city within the urban growth boundary,” Sullivan says.

Since then, only two Oregon communities have succeeded in efforts to incorporate: Damascus in 2004 and La Pine in 2007. Both have had a significant uphill battle.

A popular vote

La Pine is a small resort community 30 miles south of Bend in Central Oregon. Arid and sunny, the area is a big draw for vacation homeowners and retirees.

The city’s Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ann Gwaith says La Pine had long felt too far removed from the Deschutes County seat in Bend and first began efforts to gain local control by pushing for an airport in the early 1990s. Gwaith says the community’s efforts have been hampered by state land-use regulations ever since.

“Those cities that have been around forever and ever, it was probably one guy who said: ‘Let’s be a city!’ and everybody said: ‘OK!’ ” Gwaith says. “I think all of us were naive that things were more still along those lines and that you could structure your city the way you wanted it.”

The current iteration of La Pine — the third and final official incorporation attempt — was specifically designed to be the smallest geographical area that could produce enough revenue to provide needed city services. The population of the city is about 1,600, but Gwaith believes closer to 20,000 consider themselves at least part-time residents of La Pine. Because of the state’s density requirements, though, the city can’t expand its borders anytime soon.

“Why couldn’t the state have looked at La Pine and say: ‘OK, there’s all these one-acre lots; obviously that’s why people move to this area. You can have one-acre lots in a city. Let’s not have this huge restriction,’ ” Gwaith asks.

Even so, Sullivan says La Pine was lucky to have incorporated outside of an urban growth boundary.

“La Pine had an easier time because it’s not dramatically changing like Damascus is,” the city law expert says.

La Pine Interim City Manager Rick Allen points to Damascus’ 2012 charter amendment requiring a popular vote on a comprehensive land-use plan, a difficult and technical document that is almost always passed by a planning commission and council vote.

“I don’t know that (the comprehensive plan in) La Pine would have passed a vote because it’s easy to go out and stir people up on that,” Allen says. “I think the state would have a real battle on their hands in lots of cities if that was a requirement.”

Region counts on Damascus

Damascus Mayor Steve Spinnett says he supported the charter amendment as a way to get property owners engaged in the process.

“We felt at that time, people weren’t listening,” Spinnett says.

The mayor’s comprehensive plan, “The Plan that Respects the People,” is a 44-page document that represents thousands of staff hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars in engineering and planning contracts.

The City Council could not agree on the comprehensive plan proposed by the Planning Commission in August 2013, splitting the May ballot in three: a council president’s plan, a mayor’s plan and the planning commission’s plan, resurrected by a citizens’ initiative petition. None passed for lack of a super majority, but the mayor’s plan won the most votes at 1,010 so it went on to the November ballot.

The mayor’s plan garnered 2,001 “no” votes and Spinnett also came under heavy criticism in August after refusing to appear at a council meeting that would have allowed the citizens’ plan to be put on the ballot.

Spinnett says he is “cautiously optimistic” that his work group’s plan will pass this election day and the city can move forward. He adds up the total “yes” votes on the three comprehensive plans to be a possible majority-winning 2,312 votes of the 3,133 ballots cast in the May primary election.

“We believe that we’ve struck a good balance between stewardship and property rights.”

Metro Deputy Director for Community Development John Williams says the region has been waiting for Damascus to open up to development for 10 years. During its recent five-year update to Metro’s 20-year development plan, it counted Damascus for half its available inventory. If Damascus continues along in limbo, Metro may have to look elsewhere for developable land, and few rural areas are volunteering.

“We’re still relying on Damascus’ capacity,” Williams says. “If that turns out not to be possible, we have to figure out what do we do as a region to come up with that?”

A comprehensive plan in Damascus would allow the entire Portland urban area’s planners and developers to breath a sigh of relief.

“That would be a really significant step for the community and it would allow the region to be more confident that development can happen out there,” Williams says, adding: “One lesson we’ve all learned in the past 10 years is you can’t just draw some colors on a map and it happens. It takes a tremendous level of work.”

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