What's life like along a major river? Well, it's complicated
If you ask Bill Buan about life along the Willamette River, he'll tell you he wouldn't trade it for anything.
But there's a lot more he can tell you, too, almost 35 years to the day since he moved into his home on Failing Street in West Linn. For all of the comfort he finds in watching the river from his back deck, there's also the nuisance of sounds from nearby train tracks and highways that carry particularly well on the open water. For whatever value his property gains due to its coveted spot on the water, Buan also has to worry about that figure dropping due to erosion on the shoreline, or rusting stormwater drain pipes that were an eyesore at best and a safety hazard at worst.
Those pipes were removed by West Linn Public Works officials last week, marking the end of a saga that lasted about two years, according to Buan (though Public Works Director Lance Calvert said the department was unaware of the exposed pipes before the Tidings asked about them). But even without the pipes to worry about, Buan paints a portrait of life on the river that is both inviting and cautionary for prospective homebuyers.
"There are times when it's stressful," Buan says. "But also, it's a great view."
'It's not a constant'
Over several decades in West Linn, Parks and Recreation Director Ken Worcester has seen just about everything you can imagine along the river. Above all else, he says that purchasing a riverfront property means signing your life away to the element of uncertainty.
"The property changes," Worcester says. "There's years where you can maybe get (more) property and years when your property goes away — like (in) a different flood event or different things (like that). I've seen several instances, especially up near Mt. Hood, where the Zigzag River changed courses altogether, and you can't put it back. And we've had some of that with smaller streams here.
"So it's not a constant."
Buan has seen that firsthand in recent years, and estimates that about 1,000 cubic feet of shore land near his property has disappeared since the City repaired storm drains in 2016. A segment of the drain pipe that jutted into the river was removed and not replaced, thus accelerating the rate of erosion, according to Buan.
"This bank is going to be back further and further, and the drop is going to get more and more (significant)," he says. "(The City) recognizes the erosion is pretty extensive, and they need to do something to prevent it."
According to Calvert, drainage pipes can no longer extend into the river due to environmental concerns, which was why Public Works did not replace that portion of the pipe at Buan's property.
"Remember, this is actually a creek meeting the river," Calvert said in an email. "It is expected that the river and creek/pipe discharge will ebb and flow over time in this area."
However, Public Works will keep a close eye on the property moving forward.
"We will continue to monitor the location regarding erosion," Calvert said. "If we need to engineer an erosion control solution, we will based on how the area performs this winter."
On the river, of course, every property is unique. City Councilor Bob Martin says he's actually gained additional land on the shoreline since he bought a house along the river in 1985.
"The flood of '96 deposited about three or four feet of soil that washed down the river," Martin says. Another thing is that since they no longer run gravel barges, the tug boats caused wakes and we don't have that anymore. I don't think erosion is a problem."
Upriver from West Linn, homeowners on the Willamette in Wilsonville complain that sport boat wakes are causing erosion of their properties and damaging their personal boat docks.
Worcester believes the City's responsibilities are limited when it comes to protecting private riverfront property.
"A lot of homeowners think the City should be responsible for everything to preserve the property values for tax revenue," Worcester says. "The cost to protect that (river) bank ... it would take 100 years to recoup that value (in) property taxes."
Navigating the law
The Willamette River's status as "navigable" state property carries with it an array of restrictions for property owners.
"Even if a bed of a waterway is privately owned, the waterway may be used by the public for certain purposes if it meets the state test of navigable-for-public-use," then-Attorney General Hardy Myers wrote in a 2005 letter in response to questions from the State Land Board. "A waterway is navigable-for-public-use if it has the capacity, in terms of length, width and depth, to enable boats to make successful progress through its waters. If a privately owned waterway meets this test, the lawful public uses generally include navigation, commerce or recreation."
Property owners who are unaware of state laws experience a rude awakening when they alter their shore land.
"We've had residents try to put rock in on what they think is their property line, only to have the state come in and say, 'That's state property; you have to remove it,'" Worcester says. "Almost everything you do below the ordinary high water line requires a permit — typically a joint permit between the Department of State Lands and the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers."
"You no longer have property rights down to the low water mark, because the state government changed the law," Buan says. "So now you have more difficulty putting in boat ramps and docks and so on."
Worcester admits that the permitting process can be like swimming against a strong current.
"Permitting is not easy. It's not cheap and it takes a heck of a long time to get a permit," Worcester says. "That doesn't mean you can't get one. You should, and it will eventually come back to bite you if you don't."
When it comes to river access, the state generally considers private property rights to be a secondary concern.
"In balancing the rights of riparian landowners and public users of a waterway, the court stated that the public right of passage is 'to some extent, necessarily the dominant right, because it is the right to move on or by,'" Myers wrote. "However, the public may not exercise the right to use a waterway in a way that is 'usurping, excessive, or unreasonable.'"
'You're living on the side of a highway'
Everyone, of course, has a slightly different definition of what constitutes "excessive" or "unreasonable."
Martin points to 1996 as a turning point in his life along the water.
"That's when Jet Skis came out," Martin says. "That dramatically changed what it meant to live on the river, for us at least."
He compared the noise to someone revving a chainsaw next to his home, beginning in the morning around 7 a.m. and continuing throughout the day.
"We're 400 feet from the river, and we couldn't carry a conversation on the porch," Martin says. "The noise in the summer is really something, and there's nothing we can do about it. That's just the way things have changed."
Buan is more sensitive to noise from nearby train tracks and freeways, which tends to carry on the open river waters.
"The river carries sound for miles ... you can hear (the train) five times a day probably, and at night," Buan says. "And we can also hear the highway much better — the trees shed (in the winter) and sound travels."
"We noticed a real increase in noise when the Oregon City bypass opened, but not the 205 bridge," Martin adds. "It's different at different times of the day, but 5 in the morning is surprisingly noisy.
But Martin and Buan have adapted over time.
"I get annoyed, get my binoculars and see a father and child having fun on a Jet Ski and think, 'Well of course. That's what this is for,'" Martin says. "We're long over that — we don't expect peace and quiet. And even with (the Jet Skis), 60 percent of the time it's very tranquil and beautiful."
Despite the headaches, when Martin and his family downsize, he plans to find another spot on the water.
"It is healing to live by the water," he says. "Every day we look out, and we don't look out on neighbors' yards. We look out on this beautiful park and river and greenery. It's restorative."