Deschutes County and the Oregon Department of State Lands initiated an agreement more than a decade ago to swap two parcels of land near Redmond to make way for an expansion of the Deschutes County fairgrounds and a new industrial park east of the city.
The terms of the original agreement were executed in 2015, but progress was slow. Officials have attempted to revive the agreement for years, and they came close this year. That is, until November.
That’s when the Department of State Lands halted the agreement in its tracks, according to records obtained by The Bulletin.
It refused to proceed with the exchange agreement unless Deschutes County removed homeless encampments from the property in east Redmond, according to a November letter from the department.
But this wasn’t the first the county heard of the department’s dissatisfaction with the 137 acres of county-owned land east of 17th Street in Redmond.
The Department of State Lands first expressed concerns in June, according to public records.
“The reluctance to sign this exchange agreement stems from an overwhelming concern over the houseless camps on the property,” wrote Shawn Zumwalt, a property manager for the department, in an email exchange with Kristie Bollinger, Deschutes County’s property manager.
In the past, the Department of State Lands had a clear process for managing houseless camps on department-owned lands, according to Zumwalt’s email. However, Zumwalt said, the subject has grown more complicated over the years.
“Essentially, to my understanding, we don’t want to move forward with this exchange unless we have some assurances that the County will assist with both the cleanup and removal of the houseless camps prior to completing the exchange,” Zumwalt wrote.
Bollinger responded to Zumwalt via a letter dated July 19.
“This topic was presented to the Board of County Commissioners. The county is not agreeable to further negotiations and is ready to proceed with the land exchange as originally agreed upon, resulting in DSL and the county acquiring property of equal value,” Bollinger wrote.
The Department of State Lands’ response was delayed until November.
The director of the Department, Vikki Walker, said in a letter that no campsites or debris could be presented on the county property in order for the exchange to move forward.
“We want this to work,” Ali Hansen, the communications director for the Department of State Lands told The Bulletin.
The department relies on collaboration with local communities to address homelessness, Hansen said. The notion of camping on public lands is not unique to Deschutes County, Hansen said, but the department does not have policies in place to address camping on department-owned land.
A home in the High Desert
The land east of Redmond is no exception. Homeless camps — some of which have been around for years — are tucked between the sage brush and juniper trees.
Homelessness in Central Oregon has more than doubled since 2015, according to the Homeless Leadership Coalition’s annual Point in Time Count. Between 2021 and 2022, homelessness will increase by 17%, according to the same count.
Bollinger said the county asked the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office to tally the number of encampments on the county’s property this summer. It counted anywhere from 12-15 encampments, but the number of people in each encampment is unknown, Bollinger said.
Colleen Thomas, the homeless services coordinator for Deschutes County Behavioral Health, estimates over one hundred people could be living in and around the area – mostly in makeshift shelters, trailers or RVs. She specializes in behavioral health and substance use treatment, not clean-up efforts or relocation.
“Our role is to support those impacted by decisions made outside of our control. So what that looks like is we will continue to provide intensive outreach and case management support,” said Thomas.
When situations like this arise — when people experiencing homelessness will likely be required to pack up and move — people often enter crisis mode, Thomas said.
“It’s really traumatic for folks. I mean, they’re losing their homes. The hard part for us is our hands are tied. There’s no solution, so that’s where we kind of have to toe the line,” she said.
Dignified housing options, clear choices and transparent communication are imperative, Thomas said.
Outside of support services, Deschutes County’s response is largely unclear.
Cheyenne Purrington, the director of the newly-created Coordinated Houseless Response Office, told The Bulletin an outline of several projects to support large encampments will be available in the near future.
A lack of responses to homelessness in the past has put Deschutes County in a disadvantaged position in the present, said Deschutes County Commissioner Phil Chang.
“At the highest level, I think one of the things this situation tells us is that not dealing with homelessness in a serious way, not trying to solve the problem and create those stepping stones and pathways out of homelessness is holding our community back in so many ways,” Chang said.
Keith Witcosky, the city manager of Redmond since 2013, estimates people have been camping on the land since 2016, but numbers increased in 2017. It is indicative of a larger trend of increased populations of people experiencing homelessness across the Western United States, Witcosky said .
People have found the land in east Redmond to be a sanctuary of sorts, which is purely coincidental, he said.
“We’re all kinds of living with the situation of how do we help people access services and access shelter rather than being outdoors?” Witcoski said.
He said he expects the new Redmond City Council to make the homelessness response a priority when they take office in January.
The county-owned land in east Redmond, which is within Redmond’s urban growth boundary, is zoned for industrial use.
If ownership is transferred to the Department of State Lands, it would likely be split into smaller parcels to create an industrial park, according to Jon Stark, the CEO of Economic Development for Central Oregon, a regional nonprofit that aims to boost the local economy.
EDCO has maintained a long-time and beneficial partnership with the Department of State Lands, Stark said.
He sent a letter to the department in early October outlining the need for industrial land in Redmond, urging the process onward.
“Due to demand, and because Redmond has an extremely stressed inventory of smaller lots (from 1 to 10 acres), the 137 acres could be used to add an additional industrial park, which hasn’t been done since 2007,” Stark wrote in the letter dated Oct. 3.
This letter was sent prior to the Department’s November letter to the county. Most land sold by the department of State Lands also benefits the Common School Fund, from which the six school districts in Central Oregon received more than $3.5 million last year.
“Once the land exchange occurs and DSL is ready to market those properties, we’ve got a host of developers and companies to market those properties to. Some local, some not,” Stark said.
Deschutes County has yet to develop a formal response to the Department of State Lands’ November letter.