TOO Eric Mortensen

Eric Mortenson

This summer I spent seven hours over the course of three days at the City of Portland’s Permit Center, getting the OK from three separate departments to build a driveway.

It will cost me $577.54 once it’s finalized. The permit, I mean, not the driveway. The land use department said, yes, you can build something new on your property. The transportation bureau said, well, all right, you can do a curb cut. Now I just need the urban foresters to sign off, because I’ll have to remove two small apple trees.

Mind you, I bought the trees, planted them and tended them these past several years. But they are in the parking strip, the public right of way, so I need city permission to take them out. But first an inspection, which will reveal the trees are indeed in the parking strip as indicated on my site plan and are in the path of the proposed driveway.

Oh, and I’ll have to replant a tree for each one removed. I’m surprised there isn’t a mandatory 90-day public comment period, with opposition expected from the contentious Friends of Forlorn Apple Trees.

Don’t get me wrong. I love trees and I’m not opposed to urban planning and zoning. I shouldn’t be allowed to launch rockets from my side yard or pasture an elephant on the patio.

But having just been out to Fossil for the rural health story that’s in this issue, I was reminded there’s an urban process for doing things and a rural way for getting things done. And never the twain shall meet.

Some background: Fossil is the Wheeler County seat, located in a fold of the rolling brown hills that make up the Columbia Plateau of north-central Oregon. About 475 people live there. It has a wonderful stone and wood county courthouse, built in 1901, and a mercantile that by necessity carries everything you might need.

Restaurants come and go, but there’s always at least one place in town to eat during the day, and a couple places to stay at night. The closest town is the Gilliam County seat of Condon, 20 miles away and a relative metropolis of about 675 population.

Several years ago, a metal sculptor in Dayton, Ore., struck up a chance acquaintance with the owner of a bed and breakfast in Fossil. One thing led to another, and the artist agreed to display her full-size wooly mammoth sculpture in the yard of the B&B. It arrived one weekend on a flatbed truck, a fantastic creation formed from welded scrap metal. It was appropriate to Fossil, because the town draws its name from the spectacular plant and animal remnants found in the dispersed units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

Trouble was, how to unload the sculpture. A crowd — nearly a dozen people — gathered in the yard and exchanged opinions, because this was big doings in town. Then along came a fellow who I recall was the maintenance guy for both the city and the school district. He’d issued himself a publicly owned backhoe — he had the keys, after all — and rumbled up with a heavy chain attached to the bucket. He lifted the mammoth off the flatbed, set it down neatly in the yard and everybody said "isn’t that something" and didn’t it look great.

I guarantee no permit was required or even considered, no fees paid and no public notice posted. No one shut down the street when the backhoe rumbled up. There were no barricades, no yellow tape to keep the crowd back, no hardhats and no bright orange safety vests. Just get it done.

You couldn’t do that in Portland, of course. And when you’ve got a couple million people buzzing around an urban area, you probably shouldn’t be able to.

Things are just different.

This time in Fossil, I spent the day doing what journalists do. Looked at things, talked to people about rural healthcare, took notes and took photos. The county fair was under way, so in between interviews I wandered over and took pictures of kids exercising their horses in the rodeo ring. A cowboy in the bleachers smiled at me, and I said hello.

“Oh, you’re that reporter who’s in town,” he said.

At the county courthouse, the deputy clerk copied some legal documents for me. She paused midway to take a call and clear up details on an asphalt order; turns out she’s the clerk for the road department as well.

A couple people solemnly informed me that a prominent citizen had died recently. By which they meant last year.

I spent the night in Fossil. The cafe was closed by the time I finished for the day, so I bought a packaged sandwich and a bottle of beer at the mercantile. I asked the store clerk if they had an opener, because I knew there wasn’t one in the motel room. I expected I’d have to buy one.

The clerk said she’d open it for me, and my urbanized mind immediately jumped to open container laws, what I’d say if a sheriff’s deputy happened along, and maybe the need for a brown bag to hide the bottle in.

The clerk took the beer, popped it open and handed it back. “We do it all the time,” she said.

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