Fifty years ago, construction of the John Day Lock and Dam east of The Dalles changed the city of Umatilla forever.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, acting on flood predictions, acquired the city’s land along the banks of the Columbia River, requiring everyone north of Fifth Street to move to higher ground. Much of the site never did flood, but the Army Corps of Engineers still owns hundreds of acres of land within Umatilla’s urban growth boundary.
A group of Umatilla citizens believes it’s time to return the shoreline to local control.
“The land is just sitting there idle, and it’s been idle for 50 years,” Mark Ribich said. “It’s a major attraction for the city and they need to be able to utilize that.”
Ribich has put together a private group called the Umatilla Riverfront Advisory Council with two stated goals: educate the citizens of Umatilla about the issue, and lobby for legislation that would “compel” the Army Corps of Engineers to re-convey land within Umatilla’s urban growth boundary back to the city of Umatilla.
So far the advisory council’s members include Ribich, Raelynn Gallegos, Mel Ray, Dave Meade and Kelly Nobles. They hope to recruit someone connected to the Port of Umatilla as well.
According to Umatilla City Planner Brandon Seitz, about 39 percent of the 6,756 acres within Umatilla’s urban growth boundary are federally owned, with a majority owned by the Army Corps of Engineers. Beyond the roughly 130-acre Old Town Site, the Corps’ property also includes space along the Umatilla River, a long stretch of land north of Third Street and the Umatilla RV Park & Marina, which the city operates under a lease from the Corps.
“It’s a unique challenge,” City Manager Russ Pelleberg said.
Pelleberg said the city hopes to someday create a “Central Park” project along the Corps-owned strip of land along Third Street, expanding the current lease for a community soccer field there to include permission for a new four-field softball complex, picnic shelters and more. The city has also been working for years with the Corps and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation on trying to craft an agreement that would allow the city to add trails and interpretive panels to Old Town Site and remove some invasive plant species before opening it to the public. The site contains archaeological features significant to the tribes.
Pelleberg said while the Army Corps of Engineers staff are “great to work with,” as with any federal agency there are a vast number of boxes to check for any project, slowing down timelines considerably.
That’s complicated by the fact that the dividing line between the Army Corps of Engineers’ Portland District and Walla Walla District runs along the Columbia River bridge, dividing Umatilla in half. The city has to deal with two completely different sets of Corps staff on either side of the line.
The Proposed Solution
Such complications are the reason the Umatilla Riverfront Advisory Council would rather do away with leases and jump straight to city ownership.
Ribich was inspired to pursue that course after learning about similar efforts being undertaken in the Tri-Cities area, where the Corps purchased via condemnation about 34 miles of shoreline after major floods in 1948. The Tri-City Development Council, known as TRIDEC, has retained legal counsel to argue that the addition of six U.S. dams upstream since then has negated the Corps’ reason for ownership of those properties.
Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Washington) introduced language in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act requiring an inventory of shoreline properties in the McNary Pool of the Columbia River and the cost for acquiring them.
“What we need to do now is ask for the same thing on the downstream side, in the John Day pool,” Ribich said.
He said the Corps-owned land in Umatilla means “nothing” to the Army Corps of Engineers but is “vital” to the city’s growth and development. New softball fields could draw athletic tourism, re-opening the beachfront to public access could be a recreational draw and historical Old Town Site tourism could bring new dollars into the city.
Kelly Nobles, one of the Umatilla residents who has joined the newly formed effort, said the Corps also owns lands along the Umatilla River, near property owned by the Nobles family. Nobles had been pursuing a project that envisions an eventual pedestrian/bicycle trail from the mouth of the Umatilla River to the city of Echo.
“There’s just a lot of opportunity for future development,” he said.
Transferring land from the federal government isn’t usually a simple or quick process (just ask the Columbia Development Authority, which has been trying to complete a re-conveyance of the former Umatilla Chemical Depot from the U.S. Army to local control for years).
Gina Baltrusch, a spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Walla Walla district, said re-conveyance of any of the properties within Umatilla’s urban growth boundary would be a long, complex process.
“When the government disposes of property it has to go through all sorts of inspections,” she said.
Environmental laws would still apply, cultural resources would have to be protected and the new owner would still be restricted by rules about the type of use and infrastructure allowed on the property.
A previous act of Congress gave permission for the Corps to “outgrant” some properties to municipal governments, but Baltrusch said the Umatilla properties were not part of that law, meaning it would take another act of Congress to get the ball rolling for Umatilla. And the land would have to go to the city, not a private group.
“They would really need to take a look at those things before they get excited about the property,” Baltrusch said.
She said the Corps acquired the property by using taxpayer dollars to pay fair market value, and as a result if a city wanted to take ownership of land previously owned by the Army Corps of Engineers they would also need to be prepared to pay for it.
“It’s not fair to the American people to put them on the hook for that,” she said.
Ribich said the Umatilla group, which officially formed April 25, hasn’t gotten that far yet. He said he asked someone from Umatilla to bring up the issue at a public meeting for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Portland District, but they have not yet reached out to the Walla Walla District or had any sort of sit-down. Ribich said they also have yet to reach out to a number of important stakeholders, including the tribes, Umatilla County and the Port of Umatilla.
Ribich is no longer on the city council after abruptly resigning in April, and he declined to give his reason for leaving. But he said the city would need to sign onto the effort at some point, if it is the entity that would take ownership of any reconveyed lands.
Pelleberg said if a private group wanted to undertake laying the groundwork for possible reconveyance, he would be supportive of that, but in the meantime the city would continue to work on leases and easements it is pursuing.