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Benton County officials are exploring a new ordinance that could make a temporary homeless camp on the grounds of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Corvallis a permanent fixture.

Benton County is exploring a potential ordinance that could legitimize a semipermanent homeless encampment just outside the Corvallis city limits, effectively allowing Safe Camp to continue operating beyond an initial 90-day deadline that was set to expire next week.

At a work session on Tuesday, the Benton County Board of Commissioners directed staffers with the Community Development and Health departments to move ahead with efforts to draft a transitional housing ordinance for the county.

Such an ordinance would take advantage of House Bill 2916, a new state law enacted by the Legislature this summer. HB 2916 allows local governments to authorize the use of “yurts, huts, cabins, fabric structures, tents and similar accommodations” to provide transitional housing within a municipal urban growth boundary for “persons who lack permanent or safe shelter and who cannot be placed in other low-income housing.”

That would provide a legal framework for the continued existence of Safe Camp, a tent village that sprang up July 15 on a 1.35-acre strip of land belonging to First Congregational United Church of Christ at 4515 SW West Hills Road. Most of the church property is inside the city limits, but the homeless camp is just outside, meaning it could qualify for transitional housing use under the new state law.

Community Development Director Greg Verret told the board he would consult with law enforcement, officials of Corvallis and other incorporated communities, and Home, Equity, Opportunity and Planning, the new county committee aimed at addressing the problem of homelessness. He also said there would be a process to engage the public in developing a potential ordinance.

County officials initially said the camp could operate for no more than 90 days unless the church obtained a conditional use permit or received a formal code interpretation from the county that the camp is a permitted land use under the property’s zoning.

That 90-day deadline would have come up on Oct. 24, but because the county is considering a transitional housing ordinance, the camp will be allowed to stay. Benton County has a long history of granting extensions for non-compliant land uses in cases where the owner is making a good-faith effort to come into compliance.

“This new state statute provides an avenue we weren’t aware of … for the camping site at First Congregational Church to be legitimized,” Verret told the board.

“Forcing closure of a camping site at this point would take a regulated and overseen situation and force it to relocate to an unregulated situation without oversight,” he added.

Several people connected with Safe Camp attended the work session, and one of them addressed the board.

Jim Swinyard, a former Benton County sheriff who serves on the camp’s steering committee, said the problem of homelessness continues to worsen and urged the commissioners to consider adopting a transitional housing ordinance and other measures to provide safe shelter for people without a place to live.

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“I believe it’s incumbent on those of us who have a fixed address, who know where we’re going to be sleeping tonight, to be a part of the solution,” he said.

“This is harm reduction, and I would suggest it serves the interest of the entire community,” he added. “If we wait for the perfect solution, I don’t want to overdramatize this, but there will be some people who die in the process – and we’re better than that.”

After the meeting, the Rev. Jennifer Butler of First Congregational United Church of Christ said the population of Safe Camp is currently 14, down from 21 initially, and several residents are on waiting lists for permanent housing.

In the meantime, she said church leaders plan to work with the county on obtaining permanent approval for Safe Camp, either through a new ordinance, a conditional use permit or some other legal avenue.

“We’re going to continue sheltering folks,” Butler said.

“We may not know entirely what that means or how to get there, either in an ongoing or transitional way, but that’s what we intend to do.”

But some of the church’s neighbors say the camp needs to go.

Dan Armstrong, an attorney who lives near the church, said he and other area residents have observed ongoing problems with Safe Camp, including open fires, sanitation issues and loud arguments among the campers. He said the camp is causing serious problems for the neighborhood, and residents want the church — or the county — to shut it down.

“They’re just begging for a lawsuit, and they’re going to get it if it isn’t stopped,” Armstrong warned.

“This issue (homelessness) isn’t going to go away, but this isn’t the way to deal with it. Everybody wants to be kind and compassionate, but we have to decide who we’re going to be kind and compassionate to.”

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be contacted at bennett.hall@lee.net or 541-812-6111. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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