We didn't know what to expect when we walked into today's hearing before the Marion County Commissioners. On behalf of our neighborhood's Keep Our Water Safe Committee, we'd appealed a Planning Commission decision that granted Leroy Laack 27 lots for his proposed 137 acre Measure 37 subdivision near us.
Laack also had appealed, since he wants 43 lots. So there we were at 9:30 in the morning, standing around in the hearing room lobby, waiting for a seemingly endless series of Measure 37 claims to be decided by the County Commissioners, not knowing whether we'd end the day as losers or winners.
By 4:15 in the afternoon, we still didn't know. Our case didn't come up on the agenda until about 11:00. With just a brief snack break and a slightly longer lunch break, testimony from both sides ran hot and heavy for about five hours. We heard that this was the longest meeting of the Marion County Commissioners ever.
We all should have gotten a medal, or something. It was grueling.
I'd had the foresight to bring along a bottle of water, two granola bars, and a bag of Kettle Chips' sort-of-pretzel sort-of-chip thingies. Wise decision. Being one set of appellants, Laurel and I couldn't take the chance that we'd miss something important if we went to get a decent meal.
Which doesn't exactly describe the large cookie and cup of coffee our consulting hydrogeologist, Walt Burt of GSI Water Solutions, brought back for what loosely could be called "lunch." Nonetheless, Walt had enough sustenance in him to do a good job with his critique of a report prepared by Laack's hired geologist gun, Malia Kupillas.
In her testimony Laurel made mention of the "dueling hydrologists" syndrome. That's when two water experts lock horns and come to diametrically opposed conclusions about the same geologic situation. The one with the thickest stack of paper in his or her report often is considered to be the winner by naïve observers.
Naïve, because often "we don't know" is the wisest, truest, and most scientific statement that can be made. The basic stance of the Keep Our Water Safe Committee is that not enough is known about how much water is available to support the proposed subdivision, nor whether adding 27 (or 43) more homes to a groundwater limited area is going to further stress existing wells and the creek that feeds our neighborhood lake.
I was all set to start out my testimony with a Greek philosophy quote. I'd copied a page from Plato's Apology, carefully highlighted it, and was ready to speak about how Socrates compared himself with a know-it-all who really wasn't. Socrates said that the other guy thought that he knew what he was talking about, but didn't, while Socrates knew that he didn't know—so that gave him the advantage.
However, just before Laurel and I went up to testify, our attorney told us to keep our remarks as brief as possible, because the hearing had gone on so long. Hey, I thought, you told a "Rocky and Bullwinkle" story in your own legal testimony. Isn't Socrates as deserving to be heard as two cartoon characters?
But I dutifully cut out as much fluff as possible when my turn to speak came. I'd labored for a couple of days on preparing three critiques of Kupillas' report. They were darn well done, I have to say, works of land use activism art. A lot like class assignments, except I didn't get any credits for them. Or a lot like a company project, except I didn't get any money for them.
That's the thing about hearings like today's. You look around the room and realize that almost everybody is either being paid to be there—the commissioners, consultants, county staff—or hopes to make a buck from the project (the owners of the proposed subdivision property).
We and our neighbors were the only ones without an obvious monetary fish to fry. Sure, the value of our homes would drop, a lot, if wells go dry. But that's secondary to our desire to protect the livability of our neighborhood. We want to learn what's really going on with the declining aquifers in our neck of the south Salem hills woods.
Truth: that's what we're asking for. Socrates would love us. And Walt too. He's a paid consultant, but has a scientist's appreciation for digging out the facts (a fitting trait for a geologist). Walt just sent me these thoughts about the proper practice of his profession:
Hydrogeology is an inexact science, and thus hydrogeologists often have to develop conclusions and make significant decisions based on information involving varying degrees of uncertainty.
It is incumbent on us to understand the uncertainties, and based on the types of decisions and potential ramifications, to determine whether additional information is warranted to be able to make a decision with more confidence in a positive outcome.
If we push decisions that the information about key aspects of the hydrogeologic system cannot support, we run the very real risk of an unintended consequence that can have long-term impacts. Also, because we are dealing with a geologic system, the real extent of the impacts can take years to develop.
We're asking that Marion County require that the developers conduct extensive tests of area groundwater before the subdivision is approved. Not just a review of existing data, but drilling test wells and monitoring their effect on surrounding wells and surface water.
We made a strong case. And held our ground. No decision was reached. The County Commissioners gave us two weeks to respond to the information presented by Laack's consultants. Then they get a week to respond to our response. No winner or loser yet.
Except for the coffee house next door to the hearing room. They made out just fine with the seven hour meeting. After quite a few years, we've learned the first rule of land use activism: empty your bladder and fill your stomach before setting out for the appeal wars.