Monday, October 23, 2006

Saxton's "Picker Cabin" Update

Our story Friday on the Saxton-involved farm building being used as migrant quarters during the 1980s percolated well over the weekend. I assumed there would be little mainstream play at least until today, since reporters would attempt to check up on our conversations with the Polk County Planning office that revealed the property apparently either never saw required improvements to become fit for human habitation, or was improved without required applications and permits. In the absence of the MSM, however, both Blue Oregon and Jesus' General cited the piece, drawing good traffic and raising the issue to a broader blog audience.

In the meantime, I wanted to see if there was more information available about this particular building, so I spoke with Doug Schmidt at the county Assessor's Office. Schmidt pulled two historical records of appraisal for assessment purposes--one from 1980 and one from 1994. As is noted currently on the building, the statistical class determined by the assessor was for a "farm building" in both years, as opposed to a "residential" class. I asked whether something typed as a farm building could also be considered a dwelling and he said no.

And then I supposed something to Schmidt, rather inelegantly; I suggested that property rated as a farm building could not have been used as a place to house people, right? His reply was "not necessarily." At first I took this to mean that you could in fact use a farm building as someone's domicile, but in subsequent questioning I believe what he meant was not that it was necessarily legal, but possible in practical terms--because when it came to standards of livability and legal code requirements for use of a given property, Schmidt was unwilling to speculate, deferring to the planning office's role. What he was willing to state for me was that in both 1980 and 1994, the assessor rated the property as a "farm building," not a dwelling.

And then he said something interesting about the 1980 assessment: "on the card here there's a note that says 'picker cabin.'" This is the first confirmation I've gotten from any official resource that the building was indeed used for that purpose, although it's a rather unofficial and colloquial reference. The term 'picker cabin' is so Gone With the Wind, as if you'd expect to see a woman in a yellow chiffon dress and bonnett putting her handkerchief to her forehead and exclaiming, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers...for my electricity, sewage disposal and fresh water." Saxton's partners had admitted it was used at some point as a labor camp, but now we know it had been used that way prior to Saxton's involvement with the farm beginning in 1984.

So to fold this nugget of info into our other research:
  • The building was almost definitely used as migrant housing, at least as far back as 1980.
  • If Saxton's partners are correct about the timeline of the camp, it would have been used in that capacity when Saxton signed on, for at least the next four or five years.
  • At the time of the assessment in 1980, the county assessor rated the shack as a "farm building" more akin to a barn or storage shed, and not as a dwelling of any kind. However, its use as a "picker's cabin" was informally noted at the time.
  • By 1994, the designation of the housing type had not changed. If it's accepted that the camp use was discontinued by 1989, in five short years any significant measures undertaken to make it suitable for habitation had been dismantled or went unnoticed by the assessor, and it was again rated as a farm building.
  • No applications or permits for improving the building as a dwelling ever crossed the threshhold at Polk's planning office.
On the off chance that Saxton campaign manager Felix Schein will return my calls, I've placed one seeking comment. I'll let you know here if there's a response. But there are now some legitimate questions to be asked about the makeup of the building, and how it could have legally been used to house workers given its assessment and development history. Wouldn't it be great if our traditional media sought to ask them?