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Issue fires up Santa Clara resistance.

Byline: SUSAN PALMER The Register-Guard

Call them the Santa Clara defenders, a small but passionate bunch of residents living on the bucolic flatlands north of Eugene. They don't want to be part of the city, but it's a losing battle and they know it.

Still, they've set up camp at the scene of the latest skirmish: the Santa Clara Fire District fire station.

The issue: a contract between the all-volunteer firefighters in Santa Clara and the paid Eugene Fire Department that would bring Eugene firefighters and paramedics farther north than they've come before.

Santa Clara is a patchwork of a neighborhood, with some homes and businesses on county land and others annexed into Eugene - with people right across the street from each other often living in different jurisdictions. The area's population is about 16,250, with 5,030 Eugene residents and 11,220 in the county.

It's the result of four decades of confusing public policy that began in the mid-'60s in a dispute over failing septic systems. Public services to the area come piecemeal.

For crime response, people in the county get help from the sheriff's department and people who live in the city get response from Eugene police.

But fire and medical emergencies have been handled differently. Since 1983, the Santa Clara Fire District responds to emergencies north of Belt Line Road under contract with Eugene.

Eugene has paid Santa Clara about $130,000 to cover homes and businesses that are technically part of the city.

But Santa Clara Fire Chief Skip Smith says growth in the area makes the current arrangement untenable. The firefighters can no longer handle the 1,000-plus emergency calls they receive every year. That's well more than the 250 or so his agency answered 20 years ago with the same number of volunteers - about 40.

So Santa Clara Fire District board members and Eugene fire staff members got together and worked out a new contract that would mean less money for Santa Clara but more support from Eugene.

The contract calls for Eugene firefighters to respond to fire and medical emergencies from Belt Line north to Irving Road and Hunsaker Lane, taking responsibility for about a third of the area that had previously been Santa Clara's job.

Fear of annexation

Talk about a red cape and a bull.

When neighborhood activist Jim Seaberry got wind of the plan, he marshaled his army - and about 100 of them showed up at a December fire district board meeting where the contract was expected to pass. In response to the turnout, the board postponed a decision.

At a second board meeting last week, about 100 people showed up again with the same message: Inviting a Eugene agency to provide services in Santa Clara is another step down a slippery slope to annexation. Too many folks have bitter memories of the last time Eugene stepped in to make things better.

Their feelings ranged from suspicion over whether Eugene's paid professionals could offer the same kind of service as Santa Clara's volunteers, to resentment over the financial terms of previous contracts.

Perhaps Evelyn Mitchell summed up local sentiment best when she said: "I don't like the idea of having to depend on the city of Eugene for anything," a comment that drew laughs and applause.

Despite reassurances from both the Santa Clara board and Eugene city staff members that attorneys have looked at the contract and can find nothing in it that would lead to annexation, Seaberry and other residents say the danger is there.

"State law says that if services are furnished, you must be annexed," area resident Dave Van Sickle said.

But Eugene city planner Jim Croteau pointed out that nearby River Road-area residents - who also aren't in the city limits - have contracted with Eugene for fire service for many years and have yet to be annexed.

And as irksome as it may be, Santa Clara already depends heavily on Eugene for many services.

Water, electricity, sewers and some road maintenance are handled by the city or the Eugene Water & Electric Board, either directly or through contracts with Santa Clara's special districts. Its schools fall under the administration of the Eugene School District.

What it can't get from the city or the county - parks and recreation assistance and library services, for example - Santa Clara simply does without.

That means lower property taxes for Santa Clara residents and the sense that the taxes they do pay don't end up going to neighborhoods they don't care about.

Sewage history plays role

But the problem goes beyond a preference for lower property taxes. To understand it requires a dip into the sewage history of the area.

Back in the 1960s, failing septic systems in Lane County caused groundwater contamination that raised health and environmental concerns.

Santa Clara wasn't unique in this regard. Rural areas around Eugene and Springfield all faced the same dilemma as improved roads brought urban construction to farmland. But most unincorporated communities opted for annexation into Eugene and Springfield, which gave them the opportunity to hook into local sewer systems.

Santa Clara and River Road didn't want annexation. Residents there also rejected a county-sponsored proposal of septic tank inspections and mandatory maintenance, insisting that the groundwater problems had been overstated.

Pressure from the state and county eventually led to an agreement that Eugene would construct a sewer line to the River Road and Santa Clara neighborhoods.

Federal money for the project required the city to make sure that area residents hooked into the Eugene line. But the contentious process eventually wound up in court.

Four years ago, the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that Eugene was wrong to require hookups without conducting hearings on the matter. But a property owners' suit seeking to nullify the hookup contracts and require Eugene to reimburse property owners for the connections was thrown out of court because it missed a filing deadline.

Looking for suggestions

Now, time and change are eroding the community's autonomy. Because the area falls within Eugene's urban growth boundary, Santa Clara eventually will become a part of Eugene, but city staff members say there's no timetable for that to occur.

To help smooth the transition, two citizen advisory committees are meeting to address how services can best be managed in the unincorporated River Road and Santa Clara neighborhoods.

The groups have spent the past year learning about how services are provided, Santa Clara committee chairwoman Ann Vaughn said.

"We want to see if the residents are satisfied or if there are some changes we might suggest," she said.

The committees' recommendations are still about six months off, she said.

Chief Smith empathizes with residents. He's lived in Santa Clara for more than 20 years and doesn't want to be part of Eugene, either.

"The city has zero to offer us folks that are out here in the county. The folks moved out here to get away from city services, taxes and ordinances. We don't want libraries, parks and Hult centers," he said.

But residents do need the help of the city fire department, and the current battle is making his job harder.

Seeking common ground

The call volume has doubled in the past 10 years at the same time national regulations for fighting fires require more intensive training and more firefighters on the scene.

"It puts a burden on us," Smith said, and leaves the community vulnerable.

Suggestions that he increase the number of volunteers sound good, but Smith said that nationally, the numbers of volunteer firefighters have been dwindling for years. Young people who have the energy just don't have the time, he said.

While the current contract with the Eugene Fire Department doesn't expire until June, both Smith and Eugene Fire Chief Tom Tallon would like to see the matter resolved soon.

But resolution appears a ways off. Under pressure from residents, the Santa Clara Fire District board chose not to accept the contract last week. "We're going to have to get back together with the city to find some common ground that is suitable," Smith said.

One solution neither Smith nor the Eugene chief support is divvying up the community between the two jurisdictions the way the law enforcement agencies have. Fire departments need to send trucks and medics from the closest station because time is of the essence.

Under the new scenario, Eugene would send fire trucks from its station at Chambers Street and Second Avenue - farther away than the Santa Clara station. But the response times would be the same as Santa Clara, a study indicates.

That's because Eugene's paid staff are at the station when calls come in and don't have to answer pages to come to the fire station before they go out on calls as Santa Clara volunteers do.

"Fire or heart attack needs an immediate response," Tallon said.

The fire district board will meet on Tuesday to work toward a solution. A formal board meeting will follow on Jan. 22. To make sure residents' worries about annexation are calmed, Chief Tallon will be on hand and Eugene City Manager Jim Johnson may be there as well.

"I have an obligation to provide a safe level of service, and that's what this contract is about," Tallon said.


Santa Clara Fire District: Board work session with Eugene Fire Department representatives, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at 3939 River Road. Open to the public, but not open for public comment.

River Road and Santa Clara Urban Services Study Citizens committees: Emergency fire and medical coverage in Santa Clara will be discussed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Fire station at 1705 W. Second Ave., Eugene, Classrooms 1 and 2. Open to the public.

Santa Clara Fire District: Regular board meeting, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 22, 3939 River Road. Open to the public.


1969: Lane County sanitarian raises concerns about groundwater contamination in the River Road and Santa Clara areas.

1972: County commissioners establish a moratorium on new subdivisions.

1974: State Department of Environmental Quality is authorized to set septic tank standards.

1977: Lane County proposes a program of mandatory maintenance for septic tanks in River Road and Santa Clara, but the idea dies because of citizen opposition.

1979-80: Groundwater study conducted and DEQ concludes the area's problems represent a public health hazard.

1980-82: Lane County, Eugene and Springfield adopt a Metropolitan Area General Plan providing for wastewater management.

1983: Petition to form a new city in the River Road, Santa Clara area is reviewed and denied by the state Boundary Commission.

1985: Eugene begins building main sewer line to River Road and Santa Clara with federal and city money.

1987: Lane County turns over all building permit and zoning responsibility in River Road and Santa Clara to Eugene. The city requires annexation for new construction.

1990-97: Eugene connects about 8,000 homes to the sewer system, assessing connection fees to homeowners; does not require annexation with sewer hookups.

1994: Eugene evicts two River Road residents who refuse to pay for the sewer system assessment and sells their home for the assessment fee.

1998: Oregon Court of Appeals rules that Eugene was wrong to require sewer hookups without conducting hearings on whether they were needed.

2000: Lane County Circuit Court judge throws out a suit by River Road and Santa Clara residents seeking to nullify sewer hookup contracts and reimburse property owners for connection costs because they missed the filing deadline.


Fire Chief Skip Smith says his firefighters get more and more calls. MORE MEETINGS Santa Clara Fire District: Board work session with Eugene Fire Department representatives, 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at 3939 River Road. Open to the public, but not open for public comment. River Road and Santa Clara Urban Services Study Citizens committees: Emergency fire and medical coverage in Santa Clara will be discussed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. Fire station at 1705 W. Second Ave., Eugene, Classrooms 1 and 2. Open to the public. Santa Clara Fire District: Regular board meeting, 7:30 p.m. Jan. 22, 3939 River Road. Open to the public.
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Title Annotation:In the county: Some residents don't want Eugene fire service, fearing it's a step to annexation.; Politics
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 14, 2002
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