Illegal housing at Juniper Acres may get review

By Rachael Scarborough King / The Bulletin
Published: January 24. 2007 5:00AM PST

PRINEVILLE – Crook County commissioners are worried that many of the homes in a rural development east of Alfalfa may be illegal.

County compliance officers have found evidence of people living in their RVs year-round and putting up large houses without a building permit in the area known as Juniper Acres, which is about 25 miles south of Prineville and lacks municipal water, sewer or electrical services.

The county restricted development in Juniper Acres several years ago with a cap of 150 houses. But a recent on-site survey of the properties is showing that there are more illegal structures without a conditional use permit or building permit than previously thought.

Now the Crook County Court wants to formally revisit the issue of development in the remote area, almost seven years after an agreement between the county, state and area residents limited development to 150 structures, with 10 building permits issued a year. The county court plans to form a task force to deal with the area’s compliance with building regulations and the cap on growth.

The commission is expected to take up an ordinance at its regular meeting today that would create a Juniper Acres Task Force. The task force would include one member of the Crook County Planning Commission, three Juniper Acres residents or property owners and three Crook County residents “with interest in and/or knowledge of planning” who do not live in or own property in Juniper Acres.

“The construction that is out there that is unpermitted has got to be addressed, and that was the unanimous message from the whole court,” Crook County Judge Scott Cooper said. “We cannot encourage people to just ignore the building permits requirement. And if you don’t address this you’ll just get more of the same.”

The task force’s goals would be to determine the level of development in Juniper Acres, make recommendations about how to bring the illegal buildings into compliance and review the current limit on development, according to the text of the ordinance.

Juniper Acres has a special type of farmland zoning that allows people to use their properties for recreation six months out of the year, and have small outbuildings and a septic system. But residents and county planners said that many property owners have illegally erected permanent houses or are living full-time in RVs and mobile homes.

At the last county court meeting on Jan. 10, County Planning Department staff members said that county employees have been doing on-site inspections in Juniper Acres and have found several homes that do not have building permits – as many as half of the structures on certain streets. The county’s survey is not yet completed, so the total number of permitted and unpermitted dwellings has not been determined.

Cooper said there are 87 properties in the subdivision that have a valid conditional use permit and building permit and 17 that have received an initial go-ahead for construction. Because Juniper Acres is zoned for exclusive farm use, property owners must obtain a conditional use permit to build on their land.

The agreement that resulted in the 150 limit included a requirement that after 80 percent of the building permits had been issued, the county would revisit the issue, Cooper said. Including the illegal structures, building in the area has already passed the 80 percent threshold, he said.

Until 2006, the county did not experience any conflict over awarding the 10 building permits per year, because the number of residents wanting one was fewer than 10. But on the first business day of January 2006, county planners found lines of people seeking a permit to build in Juniper Acres.

After that, the county decided to hold a lottery to award the building permits, which drew almost 90 applicants. The county awarded the permits this month.

That has led some residents, who say they think all property owners should have the right to build on their land, to consider filing a class-action lawsuit against the county.

Lee Smock, who has lived in Juniper Acres for about eight years, said he is in favor of the task force if it will help solve some of the conflicts between residents and the county. But he added that he does not think the task force should deal with enforcing building regulations.

“They talked a lot about cleaning up out here in Juniper Acres on the areas that were nonpermitted, and I honestly don’t see what that has to do with us as far as zoning goes. That just has to do with their enforcement no matter what the zoning is,” Smock said. “They are our neighbors and a lot of the people they could be looking at could very well be people we know to be very nice people.”

Ed Dolf, a real estate agent who owns two 10-acre parcels in Juniper Acres, said that he would like to see the county enforce regulations against the property owners who have illegal structures or year-round RVs on their land. Dolf entered the last building permit lottery but didn’t get one.

“Most of the people (who own property) now are actually business owners and people that have the ability to do some things and they would like to have the county regulations maintained,” Dolf said.

The process for bringing a building into compliance is not an easy or inexpensive one, Cooper said. The property owner would have to hire an engineer to certify the structure and the engineer’s plans then have to be approved by the county building department.

Cooper said the county court will ask for applications for task force members soon. The ordinance stipulates that the body’s work should be completed by June 30.

“At the end of the day, we’ve got to have 100 percent compliance that you have to pull a building permit before you proceed with construction in any portion of the county, and that’s for your own safety as well as the public’s safety,” Cooper said.

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