Planners deny permit to pull rails

July 31, 2001 11:00 pm

By Gary Fletcher

Observer Staff Writer

ENTERPRISE The 62.58-mile Elgin-to-Joseph railroad line may still have a breath of life left after the Wallowa County Planning Commission on Tuesday denied a salvage company a permit to pull the rails.

In addition, a $10,000 loan could fund a feasibility study to determine the viability of operating a railroad again.

Klamert Railroad Salvage of Silesia, Mont., was denied a permit and has 12 days to appeal the planning commissions decision to the county commissioners.

After discussing whether to take no action or to continue the hearing, a motion passed 4-2 to deny the conditional use permit, ruling it was in conflict with the countys comprehensive land use plan.

One goal of the plan is to preserve the agricultural and timber industrial base of the county.

Seven letters favored issuing the permit. Nine opposed it. Of the audience of 55, Ralph Swinehart of Enterprise was one of six to speak against it. The Oregon Economic and Community Development Department is offering a $10,000 loan to fund a feasibility study and to develop a business plan. The study could begin late this week, and could be done in 10 days, Swinehart said.

It took a lot of cooperation between the governor and the Legislature to get $2 million of the highly competitive lottery bonds for the state to purchase the line, Swinehart said.

In addition, Congress is considering a bill that might facilitate rehabilitation or purchase of short lines, he said.

Answering the question raised repeatedly about the viability of a line that wasnt profitable for railroad companies, Swinehart noted that a publicly owned railroad is different and does not have to generate the same rate of return expected by railroad stockholders.

Even if it did not make money, an operating railroad would be an economic improvement to the county, he said.

Joseph Forest Products mill manager Dave Shriner said that getting the rail line back would n Continued from Page 1A

reduce the cost of exporting lumber, and would make cost-effective the importation of logs from Idaho and Washington. If that were to happen, his mill could add a second shift and result in 30 more family wage jobs, he said.

Shriner spoke in support of the Oregon Transportation Departments petition to the federal Surface Transportation Board seeking to reopen the abandonment hearing and to gain a ruling against abandoning the line. The petition also asks that a selling price cap of $1.89 million be placed on the line.

Contracting with the lines owner, the Idaho Northern and Pacific Railroad, would be the most logical way to operate a publicly held line, said Edward M. Bernsten, president and general manager of Lewis & Clark Railway company of Battle Ground, Wash.

Another option would be to contract with a commercial operator such as his, he said. Clark County, Wash., has run a 33-mile line since 1987. The last seven years its been both a passenger excursion and a freight line, which he would suggest here.

The issues raised were outside the scope of what were doing here, said Rob Robinson, Klamert vice president.

The current abandonment order required Klamert to address the county salmon plan. There was no testimony that Klamerts proposal violated the plan, which involves no in-stream work. The order states that the rails cannot be removed until after Aug. 15, he said. Although they have the option of taking the 750 tons of ballast, they plan to leave it in place and grade it smooth, Robinson said.

He indicated he would wait for the transportation boards ruling first. If Klamert loses the reabandonment process, it will seek relief from Idaho Northern, Robinson said.

Planning commissioners Jennifer Ballard and Rick Hanson voted against the motion to deny, according to Chairman Floyd Hoofard, who did not vote.