Malheur County planning director closes the door on a long career

Malheur County Planner Alvin Scott said he is ready to spend more time with his grandchildren – and work in his garden – as he stepped into the ranks of the retired this week. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

VALE – If you’ve done anything in the past four years with land in Malheur County, chances are you’ve met Alvin Scott.

And if you happened be around the Malheur County Courthouse last Thursday, you glimpsed Scott shuttling to the post office to drop off mail.

For longtime Vale residents, Scott is a familiar sight around town, a longtime county resident whose family homesteaded in Malheur County in the 1870s. To anyone who spots Scott walking, he sees just a man in a small town on a hot summer day.

Appearances, though, can be deceiving.

For the past five years Scott as county planning director handled questions from residents, queries from local and out-of-state entrepreneurs, studied local land-use issues and helped develop land use blueprints. He previously worked as assistant planning director, planning clerk and elections director for the county.

Scott, 68, closed the door on his 25-year career this week and stepped into retirement. The county held a party at the courthouse Monday to honor his service.

“It has been an interesting job because you have to do a lot of research,” said Scott.

Urban and rural planning directors fill an often-unsung role for the residents they serve. Land-use planning isn’t sexy – there are no cute buzzwords that conjure up images of glory or triumph. But their work is crucial, especially in a state where land use planning is frequently the kindling for political debates.

But a job isn’t just about facts and figures or achievements. For Scott it has been about people, compromise, emotions and conflicting goals. Scott has seen anger, pleasure, and frustration.

Scott’s office is at the end of a sequence of sequence of hallways. The small, neat office is tucked into the back of the courthouse with windows looking out over a parking lot.

Scott discusses his career as he stands behind the planning office counter, hands resting on the top, his gray eyes partially hidden by glasses.

“There are a number of things you have to be able to do,” Scott said. “A lot of times I had to do research — research ownership of property to see what did and did not apply to their applications.”

Scott said the mission of his office issues permits for new homes and other dwellings.

Some of those items, he said, go before the Malheur County Planning Commission. Some are handled in his office.

Scott said his job also involves a lot of education.

“Anything this office does is a quasi-legal action and everything is public record. So, you need to be able to explain what you did and why you did it,” said Scott.

Confusion and questions about land use provisions, he said, are common.

“You have people who have purchased property over the internet and they are quite startled to find they have property that has no public access and they can’t readily hook up electricity,” said Scott.

Ignorance of Malheur County’s terrain also crops up with buyers, he said.

“A lot of people don’t know that southeast Oregon is, well, a desert,” said Scott. Misunderstandings can abound, he said.

“I’ve been called a liar. One woman once accused me of moving her property,” said Scott.

Still, Scott said he liked his job.

“For the most part I enjoyed working with people,” said Scott. “It can be a real interesting job and I’ve met some interesting people.”

He also is interested in what he finds about history while digging into property information.

“In the late 1800s or early 1900s the government contracted with people to build military roads. One of the carrots was when you completed the road the government gave you every other section that bordered the road. There were no restrictions on how to sell it then,” said Scott.

So now, Scott said, the county has odd sections of land that stick out on the planning map.

“That’s why we have these little-bitty parcels that are difficult to manage,” said Scott.

Scott said the main goal of his office is to assist the public. That task, though, can occasionally collide with individuals who want quick answers to complicated issues.

“Sometimes they believe their interpretation is correct and yours is not. Occasionally you meet some strong willed people. But I think that is with any job where you deal with the public. You’ll run into a sour apple now and again,” said Scott. Scott said when encounters such people, he aims for compromise.

Scott said he is ready to retire.

“It is time for someone else to take over,” he said.

There are always a lot of “firsts” in any job – the first day, the first assignment, the first week.

For Scott, his final days were marked by a lot of lasts – a last visit to the post office, his last planning and zoning meeting.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.