Warming station site

The Union County Warming Station has yet to open in suite B at 2008 Third St., but Cody Vela with the station said the contractor is lined up to renovate the building so the shelter can operate.

LA GRANDE — The outlook for the Union County Warming Station is brightening.

It appears the La Grande City Council’s Dec. 4 decision to allow the overnight shelter for those in need to operate at its new location at 2008 Third St. near downtown will not face a challenge at the state level.

The deadline for filing a notice of appeal to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals was 5 p.m. Dec. 30 according to La Grande City Planner Mike Boquist. LUBA, based in Salem, received no appeals by the deadline, giving the warming station a green light. Still, there is one caveat.

The state board accepts appeals in the mail only. If one arrives with a Dec. 30 postmark, the board would consider it valid, Boquist said.

That possibility appears unlikely, however, because nobody notified the city of La Grande that they intended to appeal the council’s decision. Boquist said informing the city is a requirement of an appeal to the state board.

Cody Vela, chair of the Union County Warming Station board, was heartened when the deadline passed without news of a notice of appeal being filed.

“This is a great way to start the new year,” Vela said Thursday morning.

Boquist said had there been an appeal, LUBA likely would not have issued a ruling for at least three months.

The La Grande Planning Commission in October granted a conditional use permit for the warming station to operate at the Third Street site. Developer Al Adelsberger appealed that decision. He said he was not against the warming station but found the location a bad fit because of its proximity to downtown. He also expressed concerns about how the station operated.

Before the shelter can open in suite B at 2008 Third St., the building requires some renovations to meet city codes. The firewall now in place needs to be extended to the ceiling, Vela said, and a sprinkler system for fire prevention must be installed. The place also needs illuminated emergency exit signs and better outdoor lighting, which is to accommodate neighbors. Improved lighting, Vela said, “will provide peace of mind by helping people view dark areas around the facility.”

Vela explained contractors did not want to start to work while a threat of an appeal hung overhead, and the shelter board was not willing to spend money on work that could be for naught.

“We want to be good stewards of our money,” he said.

Vela said he does not know when the Union County Warming Station will open. Better Homes Construction of La Grande is handling the renovations. The company did building work for the Union County Warming Station when it operated on Willow Street a year ago.

The renovation plans must first acquire city permits. Boquist said the process of approving and issuing building permits normally takes about two weeks.

Adelsberger recently said he decided against pressing the issue to the state land use board when Mayor Steve Clements made a commitment at the Dec. 4 hearing to involve the city council in working toward a more comprehensive solution to address homelessness in the community.

Adelsberger, Mountain Life Church Pastor Jared Upwall and others at a meeting Dec. 16 unveiled their proposal for a transitional housing facility. Upwall said the church, which is near the Island City Walmart, owns about 20 acres that would be a good fit for such housing. Other members of the local faith community said they were on board with the idea, including Hanna Voetberg, co-founder and president of the charity Neighbors Together of Union County.

Adelsberger at that meeting said while the proposal has no funding, the early stages are getting people involved and sharing a common vision to tackle homelessness.

No matter when the warming station opens, La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey recently said his department is preparing to handle the possibly higher call load the shelter will generate.

The department responded to 25 calls to or near the warming station when it operated at 1609 N. Willow St. during the winter of 2018-19, Harvey said, while that same location a year before drew zero calls for police.

Some calls were innocuous, such as letting police know guests who no longer were welcome at the shelter were trespassing. Other calls demanded more caution or effort.

In one instance, three officers responded to the shelter on a report of a guest with a gun. The weapon turned out to be a BB gun, but Harvey said police did not know that until they arrived. And a check revealed a warning out of Washington state flagged that person as violent and a threat to law enforcement.

Harvey stressed he understands the need for the shelter, but the volunteers and board need to understand he has to keep the city safe, and 25 calls for service in the span of a few months is a significant spike for La Grande police.

“So what we look at is we now have an additional burden on public safety with no additional resources to address it,” he said.

Harvey and representatives of the Union County Warming Station met again after mid-December to further discuss the situation. The police chief said the meeting was productive. He said the station adopted some police suggestions and is continuing to refine its procedures.

Observer editor Phil Wright contributed to this report. 

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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