EAGLE POINT — Water rights, utility easement fees and transportation took top billing at City Hall Day in Eagle Point as state Rep. George Gilman, Sen. Doug Whitsett, Mayor Leon Sherman and candidates running for mayor and council positions discussed issues that affect regional economies.
“Water rights issues are important to most of Oregon but it’s a very big issue for the whole valley,” said Eagle Point City Recorder Dena Roberts during the Thursday meeting.
Maintaining private property and water rights is necessary if Eagle Point wants to retain its rural values and ambiance, which is what drives the city’s unprecedented growth, said Whitsett.
“Most people want to move there because they’re looking for that rural economy, culture and lifestyle,” he said. “The right to use water for farm production and animals is critical.”
Creating more water storage might be the best way to deal with the growing demand, said the senator. “There are places to do that, it’s just a matter of getting it done.”
Calling Southern Oregon a “dry country” that wouldn’t be agriculture-friendly without massive irrigation efforts, Rep. Gilman also stands fast on maintaining water rights and storage.
“There are some individuals who say if they don’t use the water, they should lose it,” said Gilman. “But these cities deserve an opportunity to keep that water reserve for their future needs — they need to have long-term sources of water for people in the city.”
Franchise fees from utility easements were another hot topic. Without the right-of-way fees paid to Oregon cities by utility companies, communities could have much less funding for staff and infrastructure, said Roberts.
“There has been an attempt to restrict cities from managing their rights of ways especially in telecommunications,” Roberts said, referring to so far unsuccessful legal efforts made by some utilities, such as Qwest, to avoid paying the fees. “That could mean a pretty substantial impact to us and all cities across the state.”
Because many cities derive a sizeable income from telephone and utility rights of way, the fees have been important, said Whitsett.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to make peace with the possibility of losing some of the fees, he said.
“The thing folks really need to understand is that at the end of the day those easements for utility right of ways will all be paid for by the consumer because if the city charges the utility a franchise fee, that utility obviously passes it onto the consumer,” said Whitsett. “That’s where I hope people will take the time to learn about it.”
The issue becomes more complex as industry rapidly changes, said Gilman. This is especially true in the field of telecommunications, where more and more consumers are changing the type of service they use.
“When all the telephones were on hard lines there was no question that franchise fees would be paid to communities for rights-of-way,” Gilman said. “But now most of us have cell phones and we don’t use any of that infrastructure. This makes it tough, it’s not an even playing field.”
Gilman said he is gathering information from the public, city officials and industry leaders before delving any further into the topic, he said.
Transportation — specifically continuing to get ODOT to recognize that Highway 62 is fast becoming a main artery and needs improvement — was also discussed.
The informal, roundtable discussion was part of the statewide City Hall Day sponsored by the League for Oregon Cities. Eagle Point was chosen as this year’s host city for state House Districts 55 and 56 and Senate District 28.
Jennifer Strange is a freelance writer living in Central Point. Reach her at email@example.com.