Ontario’s tiny home camp in legal peril as neighboring business seeks court injunction

This lot on North Oregon Street in Ontario was to hold up to 20 tiny homes to provide winter shelter for area homeless. A lawsuit filed in state court may stop the plan and leave organizers seeking a new place for the homes. (Pat Caldwell/The Enterprise)

UPDATE: This story includes links to statements by The Nichols Accounting Group and Origins Faith Community Church and a link to the lawsuit itself and a comment from Ontario City Manager Adam Brown.

ONTARIO – Plans to create temporary housing for the city’s homeless population hit a snag as an Ontario business has sued the city to stop the placement of 20 temporary homes.

The encampment was to be established in the next couple of weeks on North Oregon Street just north of downtown Ontario.

The Nichols Accounting Group, an accounting firm that operates adjacent to area designated for the tiny homes, sued the city, Origins Faith Community Church and Community in Action, seeking to enjoin their project. In a complaint filed last week in Malheur County Circuit Court, the accounting firm said the homes would violate the city’s building code and zoning.

The encampment would “cause a sanitation and health issue,” the complaint said.

DOCUMENT: Lawsuit filed against Ontario’s tiny home project

Doug Lamm, a certified public accountant with Nichols, said Tuesday afternoon that safety of the firm’s employees is also an issue.

“The first thing we said to the city was about our safety going forward. To a person, if you go around an talk to our ladies, they are frightened,” said Lamm.

Lamm said the city and other local groups working to create the temporary housing didn’t communicate with the firm.

“They didn’t keep us in the loop,” said Lamm.

Lamm said he felt the city, Origins Faith Community Church and Community in Action are “good people with good intentions.”

“And there is a need and we acknowledge that. But if they can’t get any more organized in the time they had to do it how well are they going to organize something that sites a few feet from our office,” said Lamm.

Lamm the firm finds itself in a corner as its busiest time of the year.

“We really didn’t want to file this. But we need to have it done fast because January comes every winter and we have to get a lot of work done,” he said.

DOCUMENT: Nichols Accounting Group statement

The lawsuit comes as officials were executing a plan to install the tiny homes between Northeast Third Avenue and Fourth Avenues on the east side of North Oregon Street. The tiny home project is being orchestrated by the city, Community in Action and Origins Faith Community Church.

The church released a statement saying the lawsuit was harmful to the community and that it would unnecessarily unnecessary delay helping some of the most vulnerable in the community.

“It seems like there is a lot of fear based on the assumption of all the things that could go wrong. Why can’t we instead operate under the assumption of all the things that could go right? We don’t have to determine this is a failure before it even gets off the ground,” said the statement issued by James Vogt, pastor at Origins Faith Community.

Vogt added that there were plans in place to ensure that the tiny home project would have minimal impact on the neighborhood.

Vogt said Tuesday morning he was not aware of the lawsuit until an Enterprise reporter called him seeking comment.

DOCUMENT: Origins Faith Community statement

Officials from Community in Action didn’t respond to messages Tuesday seeking comment.

Community in Action recently contracted with Conley’s Mini Barns to buy 20 small structures using a $150,000 state grant, according to Executive Director Barb Higinbotham in an interview last week before the suit was filed.

The homes are 8-by-10 feet and basic, said Higinbotham.

“They will have insulation and heat and lights and electricity and a cot,” said Higinbotham.

Portable toilets would service the camp, she said.

Higinbotham said one other small cottage would be installed at the North Oregon Street for a manager of the facility. Origins Faith Community Church will provide that staff.

Adam Brown, Ontario city manager, said he late Tuesday the city will follow through on the court process regarding the lawsuit.

“I don’t know if there is anything to say right now,” said Brown.

In its lawsuit, Nichols Accounting and a second company, North Oregon Properties LLC, said Ontario’s city code required every dwelling to have a kitchen sink and a bathroom with a shower or bath tub and that the dwelling be connected to a water supply.

Nichols said using portable toilets could result in “improperly treated human sewage” and could cause “irreparable health issues” for the firm’s employees and clients. Nichols’ office is as 230 N. Oregon St.

The complaint also said that the encampment violated the industrial zoning restrictions on the property. Nichols said residential uses aren’t allowed in such a zone.

As of Tuesday, no hearing had been set on the lawsuit’s request for an injunction.

The tiny homes, though, will be only a temporary fix. That’s because, Higinbotham said, the project will end in April and the facility will be shut down.  

“We won’t provide winter shelter at that point,” said Higinbotham.

The project unfolded as community leaders struggled to find housing for homeless in Ontario, numbering from 170 to 200.

Higinbotham said after the project closes, officials will “take several months to evaluate it and then we will decide to go for additional funding or not.”

“We will be looking at things like did the location work? Was it safe? Was it easy to manage?” said Higinbotham.

Ontario City Manager Adam Brown said there were no easy solutions.

“I don’t think there are good, clean answers. These things are created from challenges in life that don’t have answers,” said Brown.

He said, though, while the tiny homes project won’t solve the homeless issue, it will make a difference.

“I am comfortable trying this and I think we need to try it because we know what nothing looks like. But we don’t know what something looks like,” said Brown.

City Councilor Norm Crume said after the first 20 tiny homes are in place, he isn’t sure what the next step will be.

 “I believe there will be a next step because I think it (the tiny home project) will get bigger and bigger,” said Crume.

That means, said, Crume, that city leaders must tackle the homeless issue.

“It will take some serious discussion as to what we are capable of doing, what we are willing to do and what we are forced to do. I think that every city is struggling with this because there are really no good options,” said Crume.

Crume also said the whole community should be involved in the effort to solve the homeless issue.

“My mind is open to listen to any and all ideas. The only answer anyone ever gives is not in my backyard and that just isn’t going to work,” said Crume.

Reporters Yadira Lopez and Joe Siess contributed to this report.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.


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