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McKenzie residents have an obligation to protect river.

Byline: Paul Hoobyar

Scott Rohter makes a case for supporting property rights and avoiding, in his view, government intrusiveness exemplified by the recent proposal to extend the water quality setbacks on the McKenzie River (Guest Viewpoint, Nov. 15). As a property owner myself, I support private property owners' rights.

However, along with those rights come responsibilities - including responsibilities to the broader community in which we live.

In 1992, after the defeat of The McKenzie River Initiative, a local ballot measure that proposed riparian setbacks on the McKenzie River for residential, agricultural and forestry uses, the Lane County Board of Commissioners saw value in establishing a riparian setback ordinance for all of Lane County's surface waters to protect water quality, native fish and other natural resources.

Today, Lane County's riparian setback ordinance requires residential, agricultural and forestry properties adjacent to streams with flows greater than 1,000 cubic feet per second - for example, the McKenzie - to maintain setbacks that limit the amount of native riparian vegetation that can be removed, and limit development within the riparian areas (Lane Code 16.253).

These setbacks are designed to minimize the amount of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers that leach into surface waters and to maintain native riparian vegetation along the riverbanks, which helps prevent erosion and water turbidity. The ordinance restricts construction of new buildings, septic tanks and leach lines inside the setback areas as well. And they give landowners the right to remove hazardous trees, invasive plants and some vegetation to maintain views.

Yet since the passage of Lane County's riparian ordinance, many properties along the McKenzie River have been developed for residential use that do not exhibit the good stewardship that Rohter suggests. One only has to float along the McKenzie to see examples of lawns and ornamental landscapes planted to the river's edge, completely devoid of native vegetation. In other areas, large swaths of native vegetation have been removed from the stream bank.

Maintaining these parklike areas requires additives such as fertilizers and herbicides. And they don't support the riverbank's ability to withstand erosion. In addition, numerous "private" boat ramps are also visible along the river - and they also undermine riverbank stability.

Rohter supports "common sense measures" for managing riverfront properties, such as having some entity "inspect older septic tanks," "limit the application of pesticides ..." and "limit or ban the storage of hazardous materials within 50 or 100 feet of the water." Yet, he doesn't identify who will be enforcing these inspections, limits and bans. And he suggests that the county, should it want to expand the riparian setbacks for water quality purposes, "save its money" and purchase the land.

Yet the larger issue, in my view, is whether a community of users and residents can find common ground to protect a water supply that more than 150,000 people depend on for their domestic use in ways that are compatible with the rights - and responsibilities - of property owners who live adjacent to that water source.

Others have pointed out that Lane County doesn't enforce its existing riparian setback ordinance, and they suggest before any further expansion in setbacks, it should enforce the existing ordinance. I agree.

However, in the current political climate, where funding of government agencies at all levels is under attack, it's an understatement to say that the county's enforcement capacity is inadequate. Despite this conundrum, the county is the legal jurisdiction with the authority to enforce the existing riparian ordinance. So the question becomes: How is compliance with the county's riparian ordinance best achieved?

Given the antipathy to increasing taxes and the aversion to increased "government intrusion," maybe it's time for property owners who live along the McKenzie River to help by holding their neighbors accountable for violations of the riparian ordinance.

In that way, Rohter and others can avoid the "fearmongering bureaucrats" and "paranoid members of watershed councils" he disdains, while modeling civic mindedness and supporting good stewardship.

Because along with private property rights come private property responsibilities. And I would heartily support Rohter and other property owners along the McKenzie River developing a process that holds their neighbors accountable and helps enforce the existing riparian setback ordinance - without the added tax burden, and added intrusiveness, of more government oversight.

Paul Hoobyar ( of Eugene is a consultant who works with clients on public policy and natural resource management issues.
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Title Annotation:Local Opinion
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 9, 2010
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