LA GRANDE — The Union County Board of Commissioners suspended a new right-of-way ordinance Wednesday after representatives of two utilities expressed concerns. 

"We want to study it further," said Paul Anderes, chair of the county board.

The ordinance, which took effect in December, charges utilities $500 per application for projects along the right-of-way of county roads. The charge for a noncommercial application is $100. The previous fees were $40 for both utilities and non-commercial users.

Steve Vincent, Oregon regional business manager for Avista Utilities, and Mike Pommarane, director of operations for Oregon Electric Cooperative, were at the Wednesday meeting and spoke against the ordinance.

Vincent said the local law appears to conflict with Oregon Revised Statue 785.010, which authorizes utilities to construct, maintain and operate utility facilities along public roads free of charge. He said the "free of charge" condition has been upheld by the Oregon Court of Appeals in two cases, one in 1984 and another in 1994.

Vincent said Avista Utilities asked the county commissioners either to suspend enforcement of its new ordinance until it complies with the state law or another court hands down a ruling.

Pommarane asked the board to clarify the new local law.

"We want to support the county and we also want to understand what the ordinance means," he said.

Pommarane said clarification was needed on on several aspects of the local law, including what impact it will have on OTEC's members, who are also its owners. He wants to know, for example, how much the new ordinance will affect costs, which could affect the rates OTEC members pay.

Per the county law, the rights-of-way on Union County roads run 30 feet from the centerline on both sides of the road. Pommarane said OTEC crews work almost every day in Union County's rights-of-way, providing maintenance and service to new members, and the co-op conducts about 35 projects in rights-of-way a year in the county. The county's law, he said, could require OTEC to pay for a $500 permit for any type of work in a right-of-way. Pommarane wants to know whether this will the case.

Union County Public Works Director Doug Wright said the ordinance helps the county protect the road and the right-of-way because it requires the submission of plans to apply for permits, and that allows the county to know what work could be going on in rights-of-way and ensure it is done in a proper manner.

The board of commissioners voted 3-0 to suspend the ordinance. The board late Friday morning held an emergency meeting to further discuss protecting rights-of-way.

In another matter, the board of commissioners decided to delay voting whether to provide $6,000 to the Eastern Oregon Film Festival this year. The board made the motion at its Dec. 18, 2019, meeting after Chris Jennings, director of the annual film festival, asked the country to provide $7,800 to fund the event in 2020. The county provided the film festival $3,500 in 2019.

The funding would come from the county's motel tax, also known as its transient room tax.

Anderes said he did not want the commissioners to vote on the motion until the board conducts a work session to set priorities for how transient room tax funding should be spent. The commission will vote on the motion for funding of the Eastern Oregon Film Festival at a regular meeting following the work session.

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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