By CHRIS COLLINS
and JAYSON JACOBY
Of the Baker City Herald
Bakers alternative school, which started the academic year in its new location at the Oregon Trail Events Center, has had to move again because the property doesnt meet building code and zoning requirements.
Classes began Monday at the new site, a commercial building at 2019 Washington Ave. in downtown Baker City.
The Union-Baker Education Service District, which operates alternative programs for school districts throughout Northeastern Oregon, is leasing the building for $500 per month, said Lyle Mann of the ESD office in La Grande.
Mann said the ESD no longer is leasing the building at the Oregon Trail Events Center, which is owned by alternative school teacher Benny Ruda.
The ESD had been paying Ruda $300 per month, Mann said.
However, both he and Ruda said the approximately 50 students in the alternative school will continue to use the Events Center for horsemanship and other classes.
Ruda said the students also plan to have a greenhouse at the site, which is on West Campbell Loop near Pocahontas Road.
Mann said Ruda has agreed to allow students to use his property free of charge for the rest of the school year.
His facilities will help us as an instructional tool, Mann said.
The ESD had to move the alternative school classroom after officials learned that Baker County had not given Ruda permission to use his building as a school.
Because the events center is situated on high-value soil within three miles of the urban growth boundary on land zoned for exclusive farm use, the school would have been required to seek a conditional-use permit from the county planning department, Ruda said.
We had several hoops to jump through, he said.
Inspector finds cause for concern
The classroom at Rudas property also failed to meet building code requirements, said Larry Rockenbrant, city/county building inspector.
Rockenbrant said the ESD was notified last week that it could no longer have students inside the remodeled building at the site because it did not meet code requirements for an educational facility.
Rockenbrant said the county planning department granted Ruda permission to build an agriculturally exempt building to be used in conjunction with his ranch work at the site several years ago.
When we learned it had been converted on the interior to include bathrooms, classrooms and a kitchen facility, that made it an illegal use, he said.
Rockenbrant said officials from the county planning department told him the building had been remodeled for school use. He observed activity at the site from a distance on three occasions before acting, he said.
He then visited the site Oct. 10 with an electrical inspector and a state fire marshal. The electrical inspector determined that the electrical work was unsafe and had not been properly installed, Rockenbrant said.
We had no choice but to order the building vacated, he added.
Rockenbrant said he will wait until the outcome of an Oct. 25 county planning commission meeting before considering how to proceed. Ruda could be fined under the state building code, which allows for imposition of fines double the cost of any building permits that would have been issued for the work, he said.
Ruda violated the building code requirements by working without a permit, failing to call for an inspection and changing the use of the building without making proper application, Rockenbrant said.
Ruda declined to comment on the situation with the building codes and permits.
Leases common for ESD
Mann said the ESD leases several of the sites where alternative schools are located in the region.
But he said the owners of those sites, including Ruda, are responsible for ensuring the properties and buildings meet all zoning and code requirements.
The ESD paid for some of the materials Ruda used to remodel the building for use as a classroom, Mann said. He said the ESD hasnt received all the bills, and he did not know the exact amount the agency spent.
Mark Bennett, county planning director, said his office and the planning commission is working to secure the approval needed to allow the school to continue operating its agricultural programs at the site.
It could qualify in relation to training young people for agricultural occupations and in support of agriculture, Bennett said. The zoning issues did not seem insurmountable.
The planners have received a number of letters supporting the project from agencies including Baker High School, the Farm Bureau Association and the Cattlemens Association.
The program incorporates agriculture and applied learning to benefit the alternative school students, said Jude Lehner, teacher and alternative education coordinator for the ESDs eastern region programs.
They will work to be good neighbors in Baker City, he added.
To continue operating the classroom at its new location, which is zoned central-commercial, the school will require a conditional-use permit, said Baker City Attorney Tim Collins.
The alternative school will be on the city planning commissions Nov. 21 agenda, Collins added. In the meantime, neighbors within 250 feet of the school will be notified of the conditional-use application and will have the chance to express their opinions before the planners act on the request.
ESD took over program from 5J
Prior to this school year, the Baker School District was the only one in the region that still operated its own alternative school, Mann said.
The school was housed upstairs in the YMCA gymnasium at 2020 Church St.
The 5J district pays the ESD $3,200 per student for the service and receives $4,500 per student from the state, Mann said. The extra money will be returned to the districts general fund.
Mann said the ESD doesnt receive any money from the state to run alternative schools. The ESD pays for the alternative programs solely through revenue from the school districts, he said.
Four teaching assistants work with Ruda to provide instruction for the 50 students enrolled in Bakers alternative school. The program serves students in middle school, high school and those ages 18 to 21.