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Linn County holds off on transfer of homeless camp site to Sweet Home

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Sweet Home City Councilor Angelita Sanchez, left, addresses the Linn County Board of Commissioners Tuesday. She cited concerns about a proposed land transfer, which the city has eyed as a future homeless shelter. 

The Linn County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, Jan. 4, held off on transferring ownership of the 2.68-acre property eyed as a homeless compound for Sweet Home.

While the county currently owns the property, which was carved out of the former Weyerhauser/Willamette Industries mill site, the city wants to take it over for its planned compound for local unhoused people.

Sweet Home officials have described the planned encampment as a temporary shelter complex where folks can stay in Conestoga-style huts that resemble wagon-tops — each with a door, window and lockable storage container.

During a public hearing on the matter Tuesday, Sweet Home City Councilor Angelita Sanchez said she has unanswered questions about the transfer.

“I’ve brought concerns to the City Council that have been dismissed, and I want to get to the bottom of who’s responsible for what,” she said during the hearing.

Sanchez wants an economic impact study done of the property to determine what effects a homeless shelter in the area would have on surrounding properties. Constituents have reached out to her with concerns about how the camp would impact their property values.

She asked if it’s the county’s responsibility to conduct such a study or the city’s, to which commissioners and the county legal department answered, it's the city's. 

“I hear your concerns about land use, but it’s a city issue,” Commissioner Will Tucker said.

County attorney Gene Karandy confirmed commissioners couldn’t require any kind of study for the transfer of the property.

“I don’t think you’d have any authority that I’m aware of … to make a decision that’s under a different municipal authority,” he said.

Commissioners painted the issue as a larger one about the homeless crisis and how local cities tend to have their hands tied when it comes to limited resources and legal actions.

“(The bigger issue) is that in communities all over the country, people are having the same conversations about homelessness and providing the same opportunities … and managing the situation,” Commissioner Roger Nyquist said. “The one constant is that the need continues to grow and, at the local level, the city and county don’t have the resources."

Complicating the issue are federal court decisions based on lawsuits in Boise and Grants Pass, in 2019 and 2020 respectively. In those landmark decisions, appellate judges ruled that municipal governments cannot fine, arrest or trespass unhoused people for sleeping in public, particularly if there is no publicly funded shelter or other place for them to go to.

“I appreciate that the city is between a rock and a hard place,” Tucker said to Sanchez. “Your actions should be commended. … Having a place to take them is incredible, to have people stop sleeping on stoops during cold nights.”

Other officials in Sweet Home have painted this as precisely the reason prompt action is necessary to transfer the property and build the homeless encampment.

Even still, the commissioners decided to delay a decision to give Sweet Home time to decide whether it wants to pursue grants or other funding sources for the property. On a motion from Tucker, the board decided to set aside the issue and deal with the land transfer after City Council members have had more time to address their unknowns.

Troy Shinn covers healthcare, natural resources and Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or troy.shinn@lee.net. He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn. 

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