The Eastern Oregon Trade and Event Center has been directed to report to the Hermiston Planning Commission each month leading up to the next Umatilla County Fair after failing to meet multiple conditions of a parking variance granted by the city.
Commissioners said during a meeting Wednesday that they supported the fair and the Farm-City Pro Rodeo and wanted those events to succeed, but they couldn’t turn a blind eye to the infractions committed during the 2017 Umatilla County Fair.
“We can’t make EOTEC above everyone else in the city we have a responsibility for,” Phil Hamm said.
The EOTEC board had obtained a variance from the planning commission in 2017 allowing some parking and traffic requirements to be waived during large events with more than 2,000 people in exchange for meeting certain conditions. But most of the six conditions were not met during the 2017 fair and rodeo, including requirements to notify neighbors and to submit an event permit application, a lighting plan, an overflow parking plan and shuttle ridership count. The events also flouted a 2012 rule that an ingress on Ott Road is to be used for emergency access only.
Nate Rivera, who came to EOTEC as interim manager the week after the 2017 Umatilla County Fair and is now helping transition to management by VenuWorks, said county commissioner and EOTEC board member Larry Givens made the decision to start using the Ott Road entrance in addition to Airport Road. He said the decision was made in consultation with Sheriff Terry Rowan after extensive traffic jams on the first day caused serious concerns about safety.
City planning director Clint Spencer said it “rankled” to read in the newspaper that a condition for approval of EOTEC’s zoning was being violated after the first day of EOTEC’s first large event. Rivera said EOTEC was “fully aware” that it had failed in its responsibility to make sure conditions set by the planning commission were met but things would be different now that VenuWorks had taken over management of the center and could craft parking and traffic plans.
“We had that in place and it didn’t seem to matter,” commissioner Kathy Erz replied, noting the time the planning commission spent discussing concerns that the two-lane, unpaved Ott Road would not handling heavy traffic. “After the first day the whole plan was thrown to the wind.”
Rivera said plans for the first year were all based in theory, but moving forward it would be easier to craft a plan with knowledge from last year’s event.
“Let us work with our new management company and let us come back with a plan that is well thought out and well considered,” he said.
There won’t be as much data as the planning commission hoped, however. Ridership for the free shuttles — which commissioners said they had expected would run all week but instead only ran Friday and Saturday — was not tracked. Equipment failures caused by high temperatures in the afternoons kept the fair from getting an accurate attendance count for 2017, and Rivera said data from traffic counts conducted by the county were “not able to be recovered” either.
Planning commissioner Derek Caplinger said he was worried that with the lack of data and a new management company, “we’re essentially starting over” again next year.
Hamm said in his five or six years on the planning commission he had never seen someone fail to follow through on conditions set by the planning commission on a variance. He asked Spencer what the normal procedure would be.
Spencer said EOTEC was an unusual case because usually conditions are set before construction begins and the city simply does not issue an occupancy permit until the conditions are met. He said the redress after a building begins operation is usually to take the owners to municipal court and levy fines. However, he also noted earlier in the meeting that “construction of the facility was literally going until the first day of the event” and a management company had not yet been hired.
“We need at least one more year to gauge if these conditions are effective,” he said.
Under questioning by the commission, EOTEC chair/city manager Byron Smith said the board could likely have a plan for parking and traffic for the planning commission’s review by May. He and Givens also noted that the state legislature included about $1 million in their transportation package for improvements to Ott Road and Airport Road. Givens said the project likely wouldn’t be completed in time for the 2018 fair but perhaps 2019.
Planning commission chair Margaret Saylor said she was there on the first day of the fair when traffic was backed up hours, and thought that the decision to route some traffic through Ott Road was needed for safety. However, it still broke the conditions of EOTEC’s variance. She said EOTEC needed to begin work immediately on better plans for next year, and come back to update the planning commission each month.
Commissioner Moses Frederic also added that the plan needed to include backup provisions.
“Multiple plans in place would allow you to pivot to another transportation plan instead of making these decisions ad hoc,” he said.
As the meeting wrapped up, former EOTEC board member Dennis Doherty said he thought he was never going to get out of EOTEC after the rodeo on the first night and faulted the planning commission for setting the condition that Ott Road not be used. He also said it seemed there were “expectations placed on the EOTEC board that they don’t have the authority, power or time to solve.” He said he took his hat off to all of the people who volunteered countless hours of their time to pull off the fair and rodeo at EOTEC, and urged everyone in the room to “not let people divide us.”