Columbia River RV Park Expansion Plan Rebuffed
Since Simon Reeder first founded the family homestead in 1853, four generations of Reeders have lived and worked the acres along Sauvie Island’s eastern shore near Portland, Ore.
For the last 60, Jim and Jan Reeder have run Reeder Beach RV Park there, one that started before urban growth boundaries and zoning and land-use codes along the Columbia River. Meandering geese slow traffic better than the posted speed sign, according to Portland’s The Oregonian.
Through the years, the park has become a haven for 57 mostly older and disabled people with little means. They have made it their home.
Now, after decades of getting various county-approved permits and inspections, county regulators have told the Reeders that their park is illegally operating as a permanent residence instead of an RV campground. And their long-term tenants have to go.
“It’s pretty much devastating,” Jim Reeder said. “They are going to be thrown out on the streets.”
The Reeders and their tenants claim they’re victims of neighbors who don’t want a trailer park marring their ideal of quaint island living. Neighbors say Sauvie Island needs to remain rural and high-density housing threatens wildlife and the island’s natural appeal. The Reeders wanted to expand the park and that’s what triggered the neighbors’ ire.
Multnomah County commissioners insist the Reeders must obey the law, but also don’t want to be responsible for putting older and disabled people out of their homes in a county with a dearth of affordable housing.
In a clash of code and community all are hoping for a compromise.
The Reeders never intended to run an RV park. They made their living on grass seed, potatoes and pumpkins. But fishermen drawn by their beach kept tramping across their property, so in the early ’50s, the Reeders decided to charge them a fee.
Soon the fishers wanted to know if they could bring their trailers, too. And so it began.
At first, Reeder Beach RV Park attracted mostly fishers and vacationers. But in the ’80s, some people hauled their RVs in and liked the pristine shoreline, towering walnut trees and clean country air so much, they decided they might just live there.
The Reeders didn’t see a problem. And soon, Reeder Beach became a draw for snowbirds and those who chose to stay year-round.
Ruthie Thornton came to Reeder Beach 14 years ago when her husband died and she sold their home.
She used to spend summers with him at Reeder Beach. “When he passed away, it was home to me,” she said from behind the register at the Reeders’ country store where she works. “I found this the most pleasantest, caring place.”
For 64-year-old Thornton, like most who live at the park, the decision to make Reeder Beach home was a mixture of setting and cost. They pay $380 a month for a plot surrounded by farmland in a community where they can run to the store without locking their doors.
As they pass through the store with a payphone out front and cash-only sign in the door, they tell stories of the woman in a diabetic coma saved only because her neighbors knew she was in ill health and checked on her regularly. And of the man with multiple sclerosis who counts on a neighbor to take him to the doctor or to get groceries.
“Everybody looks after everybody,” Thornton said. “And you don’t find that often anymore.”
But most important, Myra and Don Steinpreis said, Reeder Beach feels like home for people who’ve had a hard time finding one.
The couple sit on cushy lawn chairs under a large canopy overlooking the Columbia River. A fountain trickles in the background. Large hanging baskets of fuschia geraniums flavor the air around their nearly 10-year-old camper and tomatoes ripen on vines a few feet from their door.
“I feel serenity here,” said Myra Steinpreis, 72. “But our sense of security is gone.”
The problem arose two years ago when the Reeders decided they wanted to expand their park. The county granted initial approval, and as is standard, called for a public hearing. Until then, no one too much cared that people lived at the RV park year-round.
“I never had any problem with them,” said neighbor Marie Colasurdo. “They have people who stay there a while and that has never been much of a concern and we love the Reeders.”
Yet Colasurdo was one of several neighbors who last summer submitted letters or testified against the Reeders’ expansion. They complained of increased traffic and litter and of disturbing the wildlife. Some said the RVs are hidden now, but that the expansion would put them in view from the road.
One neighbor hired a lawyer who pointed out that the Reeders were actually operating an illegal park. Before that, county inspectors had been out to the property several times to make sure the septic system was in compliance and to grant the park an earlier expansion. None of them raised concerns.
But the county land-use office is complaint driven, said land-use planner Lisa Estrin, and when inspectors took a closer look, they agreed that it didn’t meet the code. Sauvie Island is outside the urban growth boundary, meaning lots can only hold one legal permanent dwelling. Reeder Beach RV Park has dozens.
In a fight that cost them $30,000 in legal fees, the Reeders claimed that they should be grandfathered in because they’d operated the park since before land-use codes existed. But the state Land Use Board of Appeals ruled in the county’s favor.
Estrin said the Reeders must now comply with the county’s definition of an RV park, which allows tenants to stay only 30 days as a time.
The residents say they have few options: Many RV parks won’t take RVs that are more than 10 years old like most of the ones at Reeder Beach. Others they’ve called are full.
Myra and Don Steinpreis feel as if the residents of the RV park are being discriminated against.
“Though we have little, we’re not sloppy, we keep up our property,” Myra Steinpreis said. “We’re doing the best we can with what we have, but we feel like we’re being thrown away.”
Commissioner Deborah Kafoury, whose district includes Sauvie Island, has been to Reeder park several times to speak with tenants. “My priority is to ensure that no person currently living there is kicked out immediately,” she said.
She’s going to set up a meeting between the Reeders, the land-use office and her staff to figure out options, which could include allowing the current tenants to stay as long as they want but then bringing the park into compliance as they leave.
“I’ve talked to other constituents on Sauvie Island and they have no concern with Reeder Beach RV Park,” she said. “The problem is that there’s always the case like this when nobody’s being bothered and there’s no negative effects, but if you let the park continue to operate the way it has been then someone else is going to want to do the same thing.”
Jim Randolph, a 62-year-old disabled veteran who’s lived there three years, said he understands. To an extent.
“If the law is against us, it’s still an injustice because there has to be a human element to government,” he said. “I’ve considered what I might have to do, but I’ve not come up with any viable alternatives. I just don’t know what I am going to do.”