Property owners in 150-home sagebrush subdivision vie for 10 permits a year
By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: January 07. 2007 5:00AM PST
JUNIPER ACRES – Lee and Marilyn Smock’s house looks like a typical Central Oregon dwelling.
The outside door, surrounded by a redwood-fenced garden, opens into a kitchen stocked with all of the usual appliances: refrigerator, microwave, oven. Last week, a television in the adjacent living room broadcast scenes from the opening of Congress.
But the home has one major difference from many structures in Prineville and Crook County: It has no hook-ups to any municipal power, sewer or water sources. The Smocks live beyond the power lines, beyond the paved road, in a “sagebrush subdivision” nine miles east of Alfalfa and 25 miles south of Prineville.
The area is known as Juniper Acres, and for decades it has been a destination for people wanting to live “off the grid” and beyond the reach of society. But now some residents are up in arms about a regulation that allows only 10 building permits a year in the area.
Growth is coming to Crook County, but nowhere in the county is it so rigorously controlled as Juniper Acres. And with the price of lots in the subdivision rising, new and old property owners are pushing to open up the regulations on developing this remote, rural pocket of Central Oregon. The county limits building permits to 10 a year in the 5,000-acre subdivision because, officials say, the area is too remote to offer county services like water and fire and emergency protection.
This year, for the first time, the county held a lottery to award the building permits, and about 90 people applied for the 10 slots.
Until last year, the limit on permits wasn’t a problem: The number of property owners wanting one was always under 10. But when planning officials got to work on the first business day in January last year, they found more than 25 people in lines at the front and back door of the County Courthouse.
“And we said, ‘We’re not going to do that anymore – we’re not going to have people camping out in freezing temperatures overnight and then fighting about who was at one door first,’ ” Crook County Judge Scott Cooper said. “We had our first big lottery, which did serve the intended purpose of avoiding the lines outside the courthouse and having people camp overnight, but it did cause some heartburn for the people who didn’t get permits.”
Lee Smock said the decision to hold a lottery for the permits has galvanized some residents into action. It’s coming more than six years after they entered into an agreement with the city and state to limit development to 10 homes per year and 150 overall. But Smock said he thought the agreement was temporary. The Smocks and other residents are now considering a class-action lawsuit against the county over how Juniper Acres is zoned.
“The lottery has a lot of people concerned because you might be a property owner since 1962 when this area was developed … and you’re entering the lottery and you may never get called,” Smock said.
Living off the grid
Juniper Acres lies about 45 minutes east of Bend and 40 minutes south of Prineville. Rutted dirt roads that often pool with water in winter split up the land. The views – which include few signs of civilization – take in the surrounding buttes in the intermediate distance and the snowy peaks of the Cascades in the background.
About 100 houses now stand on this rugged, open piece of land, according to residents and the Crook County Planning Department. The area is carved into about 500 10-acre plots, with a handful of five-acre parcels.
Some owners use the land for recreation and others for year-round housing. Mobile homes and trailers sit on many of the undeveloped pieces of land. The area’s zoning limits how long people can stay in their motor homes at one time, but the rules are often not enforced, residents say.
Many of the year-round residents cite the solitude and quiet as factors that drew them to the area.
“The fact that it wasn’t developed (appealed to us) – we lived in the city all our lives,” Smock said. He added that he was born and raised in Los Angeles, while his wife is from Portland. The couple moved to Juniper Acres from Portland about eight years ago.
Alan Yankus, 56, moved into his new 3,800-square-foot straw bale house with his wife and father about a month ago. Yankus, a teacher at Redmond High School, said he likes the seclusion and the fact that he now has a separate music studio.
“The reason I came out here is basically the isolation and the solitude to write and play,” he said.
The insulation of the stucco- covered straw bales allows Yankus to heat his house for a few hours every other day in order to keep it at about 68 to 70 degrees.
Most residents live off a mixture of solar and wind power and backup gas generators. A Bend company delivers water to some people, and others haul in their own to fill tanks or water towers that supply their homes’ running water.
Don Pederson, 75, has been trying to dig a well himself, working off and on for about a year. He said he is down 450 feet already and is still bringing up dry sand.
“I’m hoping in another 50 feet I’ll hit the water now,” Pederson said. “We’re really self-sufficient out here.”
Cell phones provide a connection to the outside world, although reception is spotty. Smock said the roads are usually passable in the winter.
“There’s not enough snow out here to go cross-country skiing, unfortunately, it’s not sporting country as far as that goes,” he said. “We’ve never been snowed in.”
Because school buses can’t make it over the dirt roads, the Crook County School District pays parents 48.5 cents per mile to drive their children to where they can meet the bus.
“The roads are not one of the reasons we moved out here,” Smock said, laughing.
His eight solar panels, which represent about an $8,000 investment, provide all the electricity his house needs in the summer, Smock said. In the winter he usually runs the generator two to three hours every day.
Several residents said they think the area has been unfairly characterized as a haven for methamphetamine users.
“There are some very poverty-ridden people here, nice people that have had some bad luck, but there’s people moving in with a lot of money now,” Smock said. “You can’t deny what the county says about there being meth and stuff out here because they’ve busted meth houses, but, shoot, there’s meth houses in downtown Prineville.”
“We have nice people out here, there are a few that are a little bit questionable, but most of us are just average,” said Mary Pederson, 70, who lives near the Smocks. “Most of us are retired businesspeople and hardworking and nice people.”
The legal battle
Even in an area as removed from the Central Oregon population boom as Juniper Acres, the rush to buy and develop land has emerged.
Last year was the second year in a row that Crook County was the fastest-growing county in the state, according to Portland State University’s Population Research Center. And 2007 is the second year that demand has outstripped supply for the 10 Juniper Acres conditional building permits issued every year.
“Last year the development in Crook County had really ticked up, so there was a lot of people wanting to cash in on the land boom,” Cooper said. “Before that, usually we had seven or eight people pick up building permits on Jan. 2.”
Cooper said he is not sure how many people tried to get building permits last year, but he estimated that about 25 people who did not receive them came to see him later.
Development in Juniper Acres wasn’t an issue for the county before 2000. Even though the land – like most areas in Crook County outside of Prineville – was zoned for exclusive farm use the county would grant conditional-use planning permits for new structures. There are more than 500 platted lots in Juniper Acres, which was first subdivided in 1962 and marketed to veterans, according to Smock.
In 2000, when only about 40 families lived in the area, a nearby rancher and the state Department of Land Conservation and Development appealed a Juniper Acres building permit to prevent development on farmland.
Eventually, the county, state and residents brokered a deal: The number of new homes in the area would be capped at 150 in total and the area would receive a special type of agricultural zoning.
Crook County Planning Director Bill Zelenka said that about 120 building permits have been issued, which means only about 30 are left. Local residents said there are 87 legal structures and about 20 illegal ones right now in Juniper Acres.
But Lee Smock said he understood the special zoning to be temporary. He said he wants a soil test to be done so that the area could eventually be zoned as rural residential, which would allow more building. He and other community residents were in communication with the state senators representing the area in 2000 and now.
“The county is saying this is a state issue, the state is saying this a county issue, so we’re getting the passing of the buck, we don’t even know who to talk to, and I think the only alternative we have is a judicial decision,” he said. “We’ve been patient for five years and now people are looking at the end of this 150 and wondering, ‘Where do we go from here?’ and the county is just neglecting it.”
Zelenka said that the Natural Resources Conservation Service is currently doing countywide soil testing. But he said there was no guarantee that the area would be rezoned, and that decision would be up to the county commission.
Mary Pederson, the Smocks’ neighbor, said she and her husband Don did not realize there would be any trouble getting a building permit when they bought their land in 1998, but they had to live in their motor home for 2 1/2 years before building their house.
“What we’re having a hard time understanding is why doesn’t Crook County want to let people do it,” Pederson said. “I mean they had 89 applications (this year), that’s good tax money.”
Pederson said she doesn’t think the county should have the right to restrict development in the area.
“This is the thing we don’t think is fair, too, is why should people who are investing get to have it and the people who want to live out here can’t get it?” she said. “We have nothing to lose, we’re already established, but other people should have the right to do what they want on their property.”
But Yankus, the man who recently built a straw bale house in Juniper Acres, said he has had no problems with the county since he bought the land in June 2001.
“Crook County’s been great, great to work with,” he said. “Deschutes County would not let us build this house because (the straw) is load-bearing.”
Tammie Ridenour and her husband, Donald, were two of the lucky few who received building permits in the lottery last week. She said they currently live in Prineville and plan to build a two-bedroom home for themselves.
“Originally we were really skeptical about it because of the situation with the 10 conditional-use permits per year, but we figured it would be OK because my husband said we would go out there and stand in line and camp out to get it,” Ridenour said. “Then all of a sudden they brought the lottery in and it was like, ‘Oh great, this is a one in how many chances of getting drawn?’ So we were pretty discouraged on whether we would get a permit or not.”
Ridenour said she thinks the county should allow more building in the area.
“I don’t understand what is the big deal why people can’t just get a permit and build up here,” she said. “It’s off-grid, it’s not like it’s farmable because it’s not, it’s rock, sagebrush, juniper and sand.”
Zelenka said that allowing more than 500 homes in the area would mean the county would have to invest in infrastructure. He added that the nearest power lines are more than two miles away, and he has been told hooking up Juniper Acres would cost more than $1 million.
And Cooper said the remoteness of the area would be a health and safety concern.
“You don’t want to encourage a lot of development in an area you can’t even get to with school buses or ambulances or fire trucks,” Cooper said.
Now, Smock said he has had some initial contact with a lawyer and gotten positive feedback from other residents over filing a lawsuit.
“A lot of people out here just want to protect their investment – it’s not a $5,000 investment anymore, it’s $100,000 and that’s a lot of money,” he said. “So far I haven’t had anyone say they didn’t want to (hire a lawyer). Everyone is very enthusiastic about getting this issue resolved.”