Local access roads cause funding dilemma for maintenance

A truck drives around the potholes in the middle of East McKinney Avenue on Tuesday in Hermiston.

Everyone agrees that the potholes on East McKinney Avenue are huge.

They don’t agree on what to do about it.

The road — located in the county on the southern edge of Hermiston — is considered by the county a “local access road,” meaning it’s not a county, state, federal or city road but the public has the right to use it.

The question is what happens when it needs major maintenance.

Umatilla County says it’s the neighboring property owners’ responsibility to fund the filling of the potholes themselves. But property owners along the road say that law is meant for roads off the beaten path and accessed mostly by residents. East McKinney Avenue, which connects Southeast Fourth Street with South First Street, sees significant traffic from Union Pacific Railroad employees and locals who are trying to skip past the high school traffic or take a shortcut home from Safeway. All of that creates wear and tear that nine property owners are expected to shoulder the bill for.

“It doesn’t seem fair,” said Roe Gardner, one of East McKinney Avenue’s residents.

He said property owners along the road have been “in limbo” for months as they have worked to determine the legal classification of the road and what can be done about it.

In December, several residents appeared before the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners to ask the county to assist in taking care of the potholes, which are so large cars frequently move into the oncoming lane or partway off the road to avoid them. Residents claimed that the county had done minor maintenance on the road in years past and asked why this instance was different.

County counsel Doug Olsen told them the road wasn’t a county road but rather a local access road.

Oregon State Statute 368.031 states that a local access road is open to the public and “subject to the exercise of jurisdiction by a county governing body in the same manner as a county road” and yet “a county and its officers, employees or agents are not liable for failure to improve the local access road or keep it in repair.” The county is also not legally allowed to spend money on the road except in cases of emergency or when “public use justifies” the project and the county passes a resolution.

Residents feel that the level of public use on the road justifies some sort of assistance from the government, even if property owners do need to shoulder some of the burden.

“It started as a little service road to two houses,” Scott Purswell said. “Obviously things have changed.”

Purswell said vehicles have left behind bumpers, headlights and other parts as they took the road too fast and hit the massive potholes. Other people swerve off the road, which Purswell said leads him to worry that a neighbor checking their mail will get clipped by a car.

“You can see tire tracks a foot from our fences now,” he said.

Purswell said the nine neighbors have gotten a few bids, which have ranged from $25,000 to just fill in the potholes to more than three times that for resurfacing work along the crumbling road.

County commissioner Larry Givens said after the December meeting the county did some further research and determined it was mostly a public access road with a very small private piece. He said the road department’s survey crew has been working to determine how much frontage each property possessed on the road. If the property owners form a local improvement district to resurface the road they will be assessed according to frontage feet.

While neighbors can handle improvements to local access roads and privately-owned roads all on their own if they choose, a local improvement district provides a way for them to pay over time instead of providing all the cash upfront. If more than 60 percent of the neighbors petition a county to form an LID, the county can handle design and construction on behalf of the property owners and then send them a bill with financing options after the work is complete.

Givens said an “emergency” on a local access road would be if it were determined that it wasn’t passable for emergency vehicles. He said while the county understands the issue on East McKinney Avenue they have just under 1,800 miles of roads in the county and not enough money to do everything needed on them.

He said a very small portion of McKinney Avenue is actually a completely private road instead of a local access road. In other places that type of situation has caused problems — Givens remembers a legal battle near Milton-Freewater about Hurst Lane, which was mostly a local access road with one private section. The owner of the private section blocked it off to through traffic, causing problems for other neighbors, who sued for access.

He said the patchwork of county roads, local access roads, private roads and roads under a different government’s jurisdiction can be confusing sometimes for county residents.

“It does come up once in a while where people thing this is a county road and the county should be taking care of it and find out this is a public access road or a private road,” he said.

Sometimes in those situations not all neighbors want to improve the road, due to cost and the fact that giant holes in a road tend to cut down on traffic and speed — a factor McKinney Avenue neighbors say has been mentioned. On the other hand, a road that’s falling apart in such a noticeable way also reduces property values and creates extra wear and tear on vehicles.

Givens suggested county residents who want improvements to the road in their neighborhood check with the county’s road department first to find out the road’s classification, which will determine if the road is the county’s responsibility, if it is the neighbors’ responsibility but with a public right of way, or if it is a completely private road with which property owners can do what they wish.

Purswell said neighbors have been told that a local improvement district might not even be possible due to the road’s “patchwork” of designations and history so they are still working out what to do.

“Everyone keeps praying at night that we can meet halfway,” he said.


East Oregonian and Hermiston Herald reporter covering city government and economic development in Hermiston, Umatilla, Stanfield and Echo.

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