Oct. 10, 2018 — It was a slow Monday night at the Darling’s Resort and Marina Restaurant. A few customers sat at the bar, some waiting for to-go orders. The Siuslaw News visited the restaurant that night to ask about three upcoming ballot measures for Dunes City, but when we got there, it was the Siuslaw School District bond that was all the buzz.
One former student considered themselves passionate about renovating the school.
When asked about Dunes City, the handful of people we spoke two, five in total, didn’t know there was actually anything on the ballot regarding the city.
The reason why they were in the dark stemmed from their own views on Dunes City itself.
“It’s not a city,” one person said. “It just has a permit to be a city. A city has amenities. Sewer, gutter, running water. We’re all on wells, we have septic. There’s no way to be a city.”
The customers didn’t want to have their names published. As one person put it, “I think it’d be better not to put my name in, just because of the small city we live in. Don’t need friction like that, you know what I mean?”
Friction has been a cornerstone of Dunes City politics over the past year, as residents and politicians have been thrust in an existential crisis.
In October 2017, Mayor Robert Dunes City Mayor Bob Forsythe got down to the heart of the issue while speaking at a council work session:
“Do we really want to be a city? Are we acting like a city? Are we providing services? We don’t have a police force and we don’t have a library. We can write citations, but nobody pays them because you have no way to make people pay them. I think the question is, do we want to act like a city, or do we want to become a county again or ‘Florence south?’”
The answer to that may come in November, when voters decide on a trio of measures dealing with marijuana, “taxes” and the court system. The first could prove as an example on why Dunes City should be a city, while the other two would decide the fate of Dunes City itself.
“Those two measures are critical to the existence of the city,” Forsythe said in August. “If we have no teeth in our codes, and no tax money so we can get people to do those things, then why are we here?”
Measure 20-293: Prohibits certain marijuana registrants and or/licenses in Dunes City
Question: Should Dunes City prohibit medical marijuana processors, medical marijuana dispensaries, recreational marijuana producers, processors, wholesalers and retailers in Dunes City?
When Forsythe was asking if the Dunes City wanted to be a city, the council was swept up in the marijuana debate, sparked by a commercial marijuana growing facility being built in city limits.
Dunes City had received a total of three applications for grow sites, and their approval was met with little fanfare.
In an April 2017 public meeting, one of the growers, Valerie Cain-Mathis, described her plans for the building, along with answers for some of the concerns the council had raised.
She explained her security measures, water usage and site plans. The crowd attending the meeting was small, the public comments minimal. The council was satisfied with her answers and it was approved.
But a few months later, when Cain-Mathis actually began to build, the neighbors found out, creating pandemonium.
“I was shocked, how could I not know about this?” one resident said at the time. “I contacted several of my neighbors and they too were unaware and quite shocked. As more and more people in the area were asked, it became more and more apparent that no one knew.”
Residents called for the grows to be halted and licenses revoked.
City staff were inundated with hundreds of emails requesting specific information regarding the city code. Residents also contacted Oregon Liquor Control Commission to find out its part in approval, and if it could rescind the grows licenses.
A public action committee was formed, fliers were mailed out and city council meetings became standing-room only events. Public testimony brought up a litany of inefficiencies in city code to handle the situation. There were accusations that the council ignored code altogether.
The council looked at each issue, even involving Dunes City’s lawyers. But in the end, there was nothing they could legally do to prevent the grows.
As the debate raged on, things turned ugly. Financial and reputational threats were made to city staff and citizens. City Hall was vandalized, and a major lawsuit was brought against the city to stop the ban.
In September 2017, the council voted unanimously on Ordinance 245, which placed a ban on any future marijuana grows. The ordinance explained the emergency request as “being necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health and safety.”
But the council stopped short of banning the grows in perpetuity. The ordinance’s caveat was that it would be up to the citizens to decide if the facilities should be allowed to stay. Thus, Measure 20-293 on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot.
“I would encourage voters to get out, because it’s how we know what the public wants,” said Mayor Forsythe when the council passed the ban. “It’s important that people communicate, so we know what’s important to all of our citizens, and not just those who make it out to a city council meeting.”
Since then, the city has taken measures to rewrite ordinances and regulations regarding marijuana grow operations, based on concerns citizens had raised.
One regulation included a requirement for applicants to show the water source that will serve the property, a hotly debated topic during the height of the debate.
Other requirements included ensuring that all doorways, windows and openings shall be screened, proper security measures be enacted and that noise from the facilities be reduced.
The rules do not take effect until Nov. 7, and only if residents vote to allow the grows.
Despite the fears of crime or odors, the city has yet to hear any complaints lodged against the grows.
“As far as I know, there hasn’t been any complaints,” said Dunes City Administrator Jamie Mills. “We got a complaint about a rooster crowing that was on the marijuana grow, but it wasn’t.”
As for those at Darlings?
“It doesn’t bother me,” one person said.
Not one person seemed opposed to the idea.
“I’d say allow it,” another said. “I have PTSD and back issues, and I know a lot of people who need it. I grow it for myself, so I don’t see anything wrong with growing it.”
Said another, “They’re asking for tax revenue, businesses want to come in. Whether you like marijuana or not, if you don’t let them in, you won’t get that revenue. It’s tit for tat. It’s legal. It’s a state legal affair. If it’s legal, why stifle it?”
This is not to say that those who are against future grows have damped their opinion, but the vote is expected to be tight as opponents and proponents begin to become more vocal in the coming month.
If voters choose to allow grows, what will be the mechanism to enforce the regulations imposed on the new businesses?
Measure 20-294: Measure to amend the City Charter of Dunes City
Question: Shall the City Charter be amended to clarify the authority of the municipal judge and creation of a municipal court?
Currently, the city has no agreement with a municipal court judge to hear cases regarding code enforcement infractions. The city states they try not to involve fines when possible, with Mills saying, “If people will sit down with me and talk about how they can get results to everybody’s satisfaction, we don’t fine them.”
But sometimes people aren’t so amenable. Some residents say they will fix an issue but don’t, while other residents don’t even bother responding to an inquiry in the first place.
“Or they just lie and say they’ve done it, which has happened,” Mills said.
The reason people can get away with this is because Dunes City has no real enforcement.
“In order to do anything, I have to travel to Eugene and have them enter it in,” Mills explained. “I can enter fines now, but I can’t collect them. I don’t have the authority to place a lien without court approval.”
To alleviate this problem, the city is looking to hire a judge.
The current City Charter states that the judicial officer must hold court within the city.
“If that were to happen, you would have to have several meeting rooms. You have to have a separate place to put all files and a bailiff as well,” Mills said.
The council hopes to create an intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with the judge who serves the City of Florence, using the Florence court facilities instead of setting up shop in Dunes. To be able to initiate that, the Charter has to be amended — therefore Measure 20-294.
If residents do allow marijuana grows, it’s possible they may want assurances that the crafted regulations on the industries could be enforced.
“The city wants rules and they want regulations and they want us to do these things, but we have no teeth,” Councilor Tom Mallen said in 2017. “Really, the marijuana issue will continue. … It’s a delicate balance right now.”
Per the City Charter, the judge would “have authority to issue process for the arrest of any person accused of an offense against the ordinances of the city, to commit any such person to jail or admit accused to bail pending trial, to issue subpoenas, to compel witnesses to appear and testify in court on the trial of any cause before the court, to compel obedience to such subpoenas to issue any process necessary to carry into effect the judgments of the court, and to punish witnesses and others for contempt of court.”
The city’s stated goal for the measure is not so much to reap in cash from the fines, but to ensure a more robust way to keep law and order in the city.
It is currently unknown what the cost of an IGA will be (the city is holding off until after the election to explore possible agreements), but the payment of the IGA is expected to be covered by any collected fines.
“My thought on the topic is, a small percentage of [fines] is better than 100 percent of nothing,” Forsythe said. “And what happens is, it puts teeth into our ordinances.”
Crime was a big concern to those at Darling’s. There were multiple comments about the inability to get a proper police response.
“This summer, there was some creepy guy that was on (my friend’s) property,” one person said. “They had to wait an hour and 45 minutes to get someone from Eugene.”
The reasons for this lie in the fact that the sheriff’s office only provides, on average, three-and-a-half deputies on a shift, 24/7.
“We’ve looked across the country, and unless you go to third world countries, you don’t find communities less policed than rural Lane County. It’s just astounding,” Lane County Sheriff Byron Trapp said in April during a Dunes City town hall with the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, the Florence Police Department and Oregon State Troopers. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the issues regarding rural enforcement.
To contract a deputy from the county to patrol the city would cost $180,000 a year, and that would not be with full coverage — that one deputy would need time off, as well as trips to Eugene. More deputies would cost $150,000 a piece. To get that, the city would most likely have to raise taxes.
The “judge” measure would not go as far as ensuring 24-hour police protection, but it would create a legal background for city violations.
But at Darling’s, the usefulness of such ordinances seemed out of reach. While one person stated that they could see a need for it, others weren’t so sure.
“What fines? I can go out, pop off 20 rounds with my gun, and nobody will come up and do something about it. You got some crazy people, but nobody shows up. Come on.”
Another person stated that they had history with city fines, and the experience was lacking.
“That’s not how we were approached,” they said. “They told us we had to pay it or there would be ramifications. I mean, they threatened us, with a lawyer or whatever they were going to do. It was unpleasant. We paid up, but I have no use for them now.”
That fight led them to have little to do with the city over the next years. And so far, they haven’t noticed a difference.
“I don’t have a big ‘jump for joy’ as far as Dunes City. Is it even incorporated? What’s the benefit of having us being Dunes City, instead of just being a county? In reality, we’re county. I don’t really know what Dunes City does for us. I don’t see the benefit.”
Measure: 20-295: Five-year local option tax for city operations
Question: Shall Dunes City impose $1,215.70 each year for five years for operations beginning in 2019-2020? This measure may increase property taxes to increase more than three percent.
Due to a combination of a decade-old oversight and changing state regulations, Dunes City could stand to lose anywhere from $70,000 to $100,000 annually if 20-295 does not pass.
The reason goes back to 2007, according to Mills. Before that, the state allowed all cities to collect shared tax revenue from cigarette, liquor, gas and other taxes, with no strings attached.
But in 2007, the rules changed, Mills said. Only cities that had property taxes could collect the shared funds. Since Dunes City never had any property taxes, it should have been cut off from the funding.
Except it wasn’t.
“There were differences of opinion on the future direction of the city,” Mills told the Siuslaw News in June on why the rule changed was missed.
Mills stated that 11 years ago, Dunes City was in a “brutal time” that led to several city councilors quitting, as well as much of the city staff.
Running on volunteers, the city was treading water. The state rule change went unnoticed by Dunes City. The state didn’t notice either, so for the past decade, the city has continued to collect the shared revenue.
The city does not know why it wasn’t noticed, either by the state or by the city.
“Not even our auditors saw it, and they do our books,” Mills said. “We’ve just been flying under the radar screen because we’ve been receiving those funds, but we do not assess the tax. So that’s a violation.”
A violation that could cost them the entire $100,000 a year. The fix to the problem? Impose a property tax.
Dunes City’s suggested solution is to create a $.005 tax on property value.
The city believes that the total revenue collected from all of the city’s residents would be around $1,216.
“We don’t really want to assess a tax,” Mills said. “We needed a very, very minimal tax just so we can say, ‘Yes, we assess a property tax, so give us the money our people pay you already.’”
And how much will residents end up paying annually? For a home that is worth $200,000, the homeowner will end up paying the city $1 annually.
Over the five years, the city plans to take in $6,078.50 from residents.
While the measure states that it “may cause property taxes to increase more than three percent,” it won’t. The “three percent” language was legally required for the measure.
As was pointed out by city councilors, there is always a danger of “creeping taxes.” It may start off at half a penny, but future city councils could push to increase the amount.
The solution staff came up with was to make this “tax” an option levy that expires in five years. The rate can’t be raised within those five years, and after the levy runs out, the city and the voters reevaluate.
It’s unknown if the city will have to pay back the taxes it has collected in violation over the years.
“We are publishing everything, we’re not being shy about it,” Mills said. “I suppose they will let us know, but I’m sure they’re responsible for also overseeing that we’re doing it correctly.”
However, it is known that just the $100,000 annual cut from the city budget would be deep, possibly crippling the city.
“We’ve been a bedroom community for a long time, but the growing pains are getting evident,” Dunes City Councilor Duke Wells said in June. “I don’t like larger government, but at the same time you have to have livability. There are more and more people living in Dunes City. It’s not the same place that it was.”
But for those at Darling’s restaurant, Dunes City seemed to be the same place it always was.
There were no objections to the amount of the levy, though there were fears of an incremental rate creep.
“It’s $1 for that one, then $10 for the next, then up and up,” one person said.
When told that Dunes City will keep the rate steady, they didn’t believe it.
“Until the next time they decide it’s not enough,” they answered. “That’s what governments do.”
And for the person who had grown weary of the city after arguments over fines, the idea of funding a city had lost its luster.
“What does Dunes City for the citizens? The county does most of this. I mean, they want tax revenue for something we’re not already getting, what is that going to help?”
Road repair was a problem that many at Darling’s brought up. Getting help in fixing roads was a major issue.
“Our road is private, but depending on who you talk to, it’s not private. The county won’t have anything to do with problems on the road. City goes, ‘That’s not our street.’ County goes, ‘That’s not our street.’ I don’t know.”
When asked if they had spoken to the city about their issues, they replied, “Not really, I don’t think I want to get involved with it. I don’t see any plus. But I love it here.”
Another person stated that they didn’t know much about Dunes City at all, even though they had lived here all their life. In fact, they thought the city was only recently incorporated, not knowing it was an actual city since 1963.
“I went to school in Florence, so I know more about Florence than I do Dunes City. I live in the Dunes City area, but I always go to Florence. That’s the town I know.”
They felt Dunes was more of a suburb of Florence, bereft of any distinguishing commercial features like a Historic Old Town or downtown district.
“No stores,” they said. “You wouldn’t go shopping in Dunes City. You have to go to Florence to get everything. I’ve always known Dunes City to be Florence.”
Would the citizens of Dunes invest in infrastructure that would make a defining commercial district?
“People would never vote for more things in this city, with the taxes, if they try and make themselves like a real city,” another person said. “It would cost thousands of dollars a person. I wouldn’t invest in that.”
All who were spoken to enjoyed living in the city, and none expressed a need to move away. But regarding the question of whether or not Dunes City ought to be a city, the Darling’s Monday night restaurant crowd seemed to think that just being an unincorporated entity of the county wouldn’t be all that different from what it is now.
Councilors contend that the city does make a difference.
City staff attends to local complaints, acting as arbiter in many local conflicts. The city holds charity functions, protects the area from state overreach and, above all else, makes laws, which is the one thing that county rule could not offer.
In a 2017, Councilor Tom Mallen talked about the idea of being a city. It was just after the ban on future commercial grows had been passed.
“... Dunes City is obviously expressing an opinion that they don’t want marijuana here,” he said, summing up the various and often tense debates regarding the issue. “So, it would seem, just from all this hullabaloo that we’ve been through, that Dunes City really wants to be a city.”
It is because Dunes City exists that local residents can debate an issue like marijuana, the council believes.
If the area was simply county ruled, commercial grows would be allowed, per existing laws. No debate on the issue would be had.
The council fears that by abolishing Dunes City, residents would lose their independence, with all rules being decided by the majority in places like Eugene. And those who live there have different lifestyles and values than those in Dunes City. It’s the power to debate these issues locally, and act on its decisions locally, that makes Dunes City special.
But is that enough to justify a city?
The answer to that will be discovered on election day.
Coverage of these topics and more from the Nov. 6 General Election will be featured in a special election coverage page at TheSiuslawNews.com.
The last day to register to vote in Oregon is Tuesday, Oct. 16. For more information, visit sos.oregon.gov/voting/Pages/registration.aspx.