Friday, October 20, 2006

Exclusive: Saxtonville Never Fit for Humans

Well, things are starting to heat up a bit in the story about Ron Saxton's involvement in a cherry/grape orchard/vineyard during the 1980s and 90s. After seven straight days of hammering on the issue by BlueOregon, along with some nudges from our crack team of writers and investigators at LoadedO, Jeff Mapes at The Oregonian ran a story on the issue this morning, opting to largely focus on the strength of Saxton's claims to be a "farmer," but also noting the rattle and hum from unnamed "Democratic bloggers:"
Democratic bloggers have pressed their attacks on Saxton by charging that he was involved in a substandard migrant labor camp, and as evidence they have shown a county assessor's photo of a decaying corrugated metal building that once housed farmworkers.

The two partners that have been active in the operation of the farm, Salem residents Dennis Peseau and James Thomas, said the migrant camp operated no later than 1989. They say the building has been allowed to deteriorate since then because it has only been used for storage. Paul Futrell, the farm's current manager, said the camp has not been used since he started working there in 1991.

The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, which is now charged with registering and inspecting migrant farmworker camps, said it has no records of a migrant camp at the farm over the past 10 years. Diane Childs, a spokeswoman for the agency, said it has not retained any records for years before 1996.

Nedra Cunningham, a retired compliance manager for the Bureau of Labor and Industries, which once also inspected migrant camps, said it is difficult to judge the quality of the housing by looking at a photo of a building that hasn't been used for that purpose for several years.
Decent legwork by Mapes, but he was stymied by the lack of record retention going back to the 80s, when two of the other farm's owners admitted the building was used as migrant labor housing. I can understand that, because I talked to the same people Mapes did, and got the same answers from the same agencies. Any attempt to show that the farm did not have the necessary registrations and endorsements to run a labor camp runs up against the difficulty of proving a negative--especially when contemporary documentation is no longer available.

But it occurred to me that there may be another way to go about it. OR-OSHA's regulations for labor camp housing involve what you'd expect: water supply, toilet facilities, sewage, laundry/bathing facilities, electrical safety and lighting, garbage disposal, cooking/eating facilities, pest control, fire safety, et al. But there's a more basic standard required of any building used as farm labor housing: it has to be some kind of occupancy fit for dwelling, i.e, someplace people can inhabit. If the building isn't fit for humans to live in, it could never have legally been used for housing.

The Planning Division of the Polk County Community Development Office is where appraisal and improvement information about county buildings resides. Permit Specialist Dana Gibson was kind enough to immediately assist me when I called to inquire about the building in question. First of all, I asked about the class type noted on the taxlot page for the farm: "farm building." There are three of them on the property currently: what we're calling Saxtonville, apparently built in 1953; a traditional-looking barn from 1969; and a more recent, modern looking barn from 2000 {Use of IE to open these photos is strongly advised}. That's in addition to two other properties that look more like places to live, and are indeed classed as "residences."

The migrants' building is too old to have required an initial building permit, Gibson told me. The classification of the buildings is done by assessors for the county, and I asked whether a property classed as a farm building could be considered something habitable by humans, i.e., a "dwelling." Gibson said no.

Well OK, so it wasn't a dwelling when the county checked it out. But maybe they fixed it up in order to make it into migrant housing, and since then it's deteriorated. That would be a possibility--but for that to be true, the owners would have needed to apply to the Planning Division in order to convert the occupancy into something people could live in.

Only they never did. Gibson ran through the file for the farm, and found nothing to substantiate any improvements related to that building. No permits, no applications, no nothing. How far back do their records go, you might ask? At one point during the search she thought she might have found something, filed under "special exception" in 1978, so the availability of records on the property go well beyond Saxton's interest in the farm beginning in 1984. (The exception turned out to be an application to split off seven acres from the original property, which was denied).

Having digested all that information, I attempted to restate back to Gibson what I thought she had told me: when assessors reviewed that property, they found it to be a farm building and not a dwelling suitable for people to live in. For that property to subsequently have been used as a dwelling, improvements would need to have been made to the property in order to convert it. For that to happen, an application for making those improvements would have to have been filed and approved by the Planning Division, and permits issued for the conversion. And as far as Polk County Planning is concerned, no applications were received, no permits issued. Gibson responded affirmatively to all points. And finally I asked, "are there any other county offices where this kind of process could have happened?" "No, it all comes through us," was her reply.

So what now, Ron? You've admitted you were part of a farm with a migrant labor camp. Your partners have admitted that the building we've all been looking at was the one where the workers were housed. And now the county where your farm is located is saying that the building was not fit for housing, and no requests to upgrade it to a human dwelling were ever received. That means one of two things: 1) The building was upgraded, illegally and without review; or 2) The building was never upgraded to be fit for humans to live in.

Which is it?