UMATILLA COUNTY, Ore. — After months of waiting due to COVID-19 limitations and the hope that property owners could come to a resolution themselves, the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners issued a compromise Wednesday, Oct. 7, on the formation of the North Umatilla County Livestock District.
Rather than approving the formation of the district as proposed, which would have been the largest in the county at 252 square miles and include more than 500 property owners, the board conditionally approved a smaller district in the northeastern portion of the original proposal.
“It’s a less divisive proposal but it gets us part way down the road, and hopefully it should signal that we’re incredibly serious about resolution occurring,” Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said.
Umatilla County Counsel Doug Olsen indicated the district approved for formation Oct. 7 is roughly 45,000 acres with about 250 tax lots in it, but doesn’t include any property owners who have voiced opposition to a livestock district.
A map of the compromised district places its boundaries at Holdman Road to the south all the way to the Washington border at the north, with Kings, South Juniper Canyon and Dorran roads each making the western boundary and Kuppers Road making the eastern border. The district will officially become the 11th in the county as long as a majority of property owners in the new proposed district sign a petition in favor of it within the next 90 days.
The commissioners also unanimously moved to include that the county may consider annexing other portions of the initial proposal into the livestock district in the future.
For properties within a livestock district, the responsibility falls on livestock owners to keep livestock on their property. In its current state of open range, property owners are responsible for keeping livestock off their property if they don’t want it to be grazed on.
“The main reason we started this is to shift the liability and legal responsibility of the cattle to the cattleman,” said Jeff Newtson, the original petitioner for the district. “I don’t know why it’s my responsibility to keep the cattle out.”
According to Newtson’s petition, forming a district was a solution for himself and other wheat farmers in unincorporated northern Umatilla County who were suffering monetary losses due to cattle grazing on their wheat fields.
Property owners also spoke in opposition of the district on Oct. 7 and voiced similar concerns as before — shifting responsibility opens livestock owners up to potential lawsuits if livestock is hit by a vehicle traveling through the area after getting out, and that the proposed district was too large.
However, Olsen noted that a livestock owner wouldn’t automatically be held responsible in the event that livestock got out from a fenced-in property and was hit by a passing vehicle.
“If you are on a livestock district and some livestock gets out, the way the law is written, there has to be some negligence on your part to allow the livestock to leave the property in order for you to have some liability,” Olsen said.
Drawing on his 45 years in the insurance industry, Umatilla County Commissioner Bill Elfering added that basic farm liability insurance would likely protect someone in that case.
But the “enormous size” of the district, Murdock said, was also a concern he shared.
“At the very least, it would seem more practical to have two districts, if not three,” he said.
The compromised district was ultimately approved with a 2-1 vote, as Murdock and Commissioner John Shafer voted in favor. Elfering said prior to the vote that he was still open to approving the entirety of the initial proposal and opted to vote against the compromised district.
While a compromise was possible in the moment, the commissioners also expressed frustration at the position they were put in following changes to the procedures for forming a livestock district altogether. Prior to those changes in 2019, impacted property owners would have decided it by a simple majority vote in a special election.
“I’m angry that the commissioners have been forced into addressing such a divisive matter,” Murdock said.