City Councilors take a river walk to talk about access issues

Written by Terri Harber July 12, 2013 08:13 am

S. John Collins / Baker City Herald An open beach area and seclusion near the end of Main Street attracts crowds and parties that have been objectionable to some residents. Baker City Councilors toured river areas this week.
S. John Collins / Baker City Herald An open beach area and seclusion near the end of Main Street attracts crowds and parties that have been objectionable to some residents. Baker City Councilors toured river areas this week.

By Terri Harber

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It was a clear and beautiful morning on Tuesday — perfect for a stroll along the Powder River. 

While this type of field trip was a change of pace for members of the Baker City Council, it wasn’t strictly for fun. They wanted to see some southern sections of the river, starting on the south side of the Myrtle Street bridge at the front entrance into Wade Williams Park, which have been problem areas for the city and for property owners. 

A long section of chain-link fence has been removed and some weeds pulled up next to river, between the bridge and the gate that leads into Wade Williams, which is owned by the Baker Elks Lodge. This is going to be one of two spots where the city intends to enhance access in and out of the river for swimmers and floaters.

Michelle Owen, the city’s public works director (and the councilors’ tour guide Tuesday morning), expects confirmation next month about whether the city will receive a state parks grant to pay for river access improvements near the Myrtle Street bridge, where the fence was removed, as well as at a second location in Central Park, near the path that leads to the restrooms.

A $17,000 grant the city must match with another $4,000 would cover the cost for improvements at both locations. This project alone won’t solve every issue, but simply removing the chain link near the bridge “has already helped,” Owen said. 

The Myrtle site has plenty of attributes — especially the existing parking on Kathryn Lane, the gravel road where Little League parents park their cars and walk up to the bleachers to watch their children play baseball and softball during the summer, she said.

River users seem to like the Myrtle entrance already, even though improvement work likely won’t begin there until October, Owen said.

The project would provide an alternative river entry point to many people now using locations adjacent or near private property. People sometimes trespass through these private locations to reach the water.

Starting at Myrtle Street “makes for a very nice float down to Kirkway (Drive, at the north terminus of the Leo Adler Memorial Parkway). It’s a great spot,” Police Chief Wyn Lohner said. “There’s parking and it’s in the shade,” he said, describing the small city park near the intersection of Kirkway and Hughes Lane.

Lohner said he was pleased recently to have a resident ask him where the best place would be to start a river ride in the Powder. People usually don’t take the time to ask how to politely and lawfully engage in recreational pursuits.

Local youths have been congregating in the river next to Central Park. Steps might discourage the potentially dangerous jumping and swinging sometimes seen in that section of the river. And city officials continue negotiating with property owners to add parking next to Central Park, which would encourage more families to visit the public ground that officially opened about two years ago.

The two southern points along the river where the steps will be placed should provide water recreationalists a nice float as well — with a much shorter walk back to one’s car than from Kirkway, Owen said.

On their tour the councilors moved southeast through Wade Williams Park and stopped to look at a spot where river access appears natural but requires trespassing on private land. 

This is because the park isn’t city-owned. The Elks allow access into the area between the ballfield and the water by permission only.

Guests of the Elks who have been camping in the park have been subjected to bad behavior by people in the river floating by. Sometimes the campers are bothered by people who mistakenly believe the campers are illegally staying on public property and, occasionally, bothered or harassed by local youth, Lohner has said in the past. 

Federal employees can visit a large U.S. Geological Survey gauging station along the river there, however. The structure, which resembles a portable outhouse from the back, measures water flow and river depth. The river crested at 5.36 feet in that location one day in February 1979, according to the USGS. 

Last stop

The group continued walking southeast and soon approached the back of a residential property. It’s the home of Kathy and Tom Tressler, which is located at the south end of Main Street. 

Their residence sits near a section of riverfront with a small stretch of beach. Overgrown vegetation and relative seclusion attracts teens and others seeking to have unsupervised fun. 

The south end of Main Street, which travels past the Tresslers’ property line to the east, and River Drive, which runs along the south side of the Tresslers’ property, both are public rights-of-way, according to the Baker County Assessor’s Office.

People trespass across the Tresslers’ property while making their way to and from the river and the adjacent public rights-of-way. Some hang around in and around their carport and garage, often drinking or smoking marijuana, sometimes having sex or fighting. The Tresslers have had property stolen from their yard.

The Tresslers and city officials believe clean up of the Boys’ Jungle two years ago resulted in more problems around the Tresslers’ residence and in the back of Elks Park. Boys Jungle is the area between the river and the Leo Adler Memorial Parkway just north of D Street, and for decades the privately owned property has been mistakenly identified by many residents as a public park.

One time 10 cars were parked around the Tressler home. One vehicle was left for hours blocking them in. This potential for a lack of access to and from the property could prove dangerous, Owen said.

Kathy Tressler eventually asked the city to close a portion of Main Street south of Clifford Street to its intersection with the river. The couple would pay the city $150 annually for a facility use permit to obtain access themselves— at least until the city comes up with another solution that could provide more security for the Tresslers while still allowing river access there to the public.

Councilors could decide what to do with the Tresslers’ request at the end of summer or during early fall, Owen said.

Councilor Barbara Johnson suggested Tuesday’s tour after Kathy Tressler came to the May 14 council meeting seeking the closure.

“It was productive,” Johnson said after the tour. “It gave me a lot of background information. ...It was well worth the time and gave me a better picture of the area.”

Mayor Richard Langrell hadn’t been down to that beach section of riverside “in years,” he said.

It hadn’t changed much except for there being more trees. He’d like to see the area cleaned up and made more open so people could use it.

“It’s a really nice asset,” he said. 

Flow of ideas

The riverfront section from Myrtle to Main could provide a picturesque spot for construction of a new stretch of the Leo Adler Memorial Parkway, Langrell also said.  

This is why the city hasn’t vacated other rights-of-way in the area. There’s no money available for such a project right now but funding could be found in the future, Owen explained.

City officials also have expressed interest in acquiring a nearby site to allow future access to the river and any future non-motorized path that might end there. 

It’s an uninhabited residential property that faces Resort Street. The back end of the property lies on the other side of Main Street, across from the Tresslers. It could be used by people to leave their vehicles and walk to the river and any future pathway, Langrell said. 

A fence around the Tresslers’ residence would allow them protected access to and from their home and keep out some of the noise. People walking to and from the river, and to and from the potential parking lot accessible by drivers from Resort Street wouldn’t be as disruptive.

Lohner is waiting for information that could help determine future river access along some portions of the river that run through the city. 

The state has not designated the Powder as a “navigable” waterway. That means the riverbank and riverbed doesn’t belong to everyone — just to the adjacent property owners. However, some stretches of the river might be navigable for public use, Lohner explained.

He provided the Herald with correspondence between himself and Brent Smith, a partner with the law firm Baum Smith LLC in La Grande who serves as the city attorney: 

“A waterway is navigable-for-public-use if it has the capacity, in terms of length, width and depth, to enable boats to make successful progress through its waters. If a privately owned waterway meets this test, the lawful public uses generally include navigation, commerce or recreation. Recreation in this case includes use of small boats for pleasure and fishing, as well as swimming. The public may use the land adjacent to a waterway that is navigable-for-public use as long as the use of the adjacent land is ‘necessary’ to the lawful use of the waterway.”

An example of how to handle such locations could lie to the west. The city of Bend has a long stretch of the Deschutes River that’s not navigable but is used by the public. Baker City is looking at Bend’s ordinances regarding the Deschutes and its enforcement methods to determine what could work here, Lohner said. 

This exemption wouldn’t allow for loitering and other unlawful activities that have been disturbing the Tresslers, however.  

Attention given to Tresslers’ plight earlier seems to have slowed down the loiterers this year. Tressler is bracing herself for when the Elks close the front gates in September after the league play ends.

“That’s when the trouble really begins,” she said. 

The city hopes encouraging people to get in and out of the river at Myrtle will stop some of the usage near the Tresslers during late summer and early fall. 

Removing some vegetation near the Tresslers’ home and eventually constructing a non-motorized path could be long-term solutions to the loitering problem there and around the park, Owen and some of the councilors said.