A quiet bluff overlooking the Snake River north of Ontario is again the scene of a fight between homeowners guarding their tranquility and a landowner determined to mine tons of gravel in their midst.
About a dozen people live on Jasmine Slope, a mix of farms, homesteads and old gravel pits about 15 miles north of Ontario. A winding road west off Oregon Highway 201 climbs up the slope to yield sweeping views to the east of the Snake River and farming country.
Residents treasure their country quiet.
“We like that type of lifestyle,” said Dinah Lord, a retiree who moved with her husband to a home on the slope in 2010. “I’m not saying that we are reclusive. We like our peace and quiet.”
In the middle of the scattered homes sits the 260 acres or so that has been in Dallas Head’s family for 80 years. The family actively mined gravel off the ground for years, he said, but no longer does.
Head wants to change that. Along with contractor Darren Lee, they are trying to open up a new gravel quarry.
The clash is a classic between property owners with sharply different views.
“I do have the right to enjoy the property and have the right to, you know, take advantage of the property.”–Contractor Darren Lee
Residents such as Lord say Head has no legal right to mine the ground.
Head contends he simply has to follow state laws for the needed approvals to start hauling out of a reserve of an estimated three million tons of rock. He is deeply troubled that others want to control what he can do with his land.
Now, the fight has once again moved into the legal arena.
That wasn’t what Lord and others expected after they won their first fight with Head and Lee two years ago.
In March 2021, Lee sought county permission to put in the gravel quarry. He established his business, 4 Lee’s Excavation, in 2007 and has trucked gravel since then. He told the county the quarry was compatible with the area because Head’s property “historically has been used a quarry privately and by the government for the past 50+ years.”
Head said in a recent interview that there have been no gravel operations on the property for 40 years.
The 2021 application set off a months-long slog through the planning process. The Malheur County Planning Commission conducted three public hearings. Virtually every neighbor testified, raising concerns over livability, road conditions, wildlife habitat and groundwater.
Lee appeared as well.
“There is concern I am going to turn this into a huge gravel operation,” he testified at one hearing. “This is unfounded and it’s historically fraud.”
He said there is a need for gravel in the region, and he raised private property as an issue.
“I do have the right to enjoy the property and have the right to, you know, take advantage of the property,” he said.
Residents implored the planning commission to reject the quarry.
“Approval on this project would cost 10 families the ability to enjoy the unique residential lifestyle, which some families have cherished for almost 40 plus years,” said Riley Downing. “Ten families lose and one person wins. “
Patty Dickenson told planning commissioners that if the quarry starts up, “I will never again be able to look east and see wide open land and beautiful valley views, that stretches from Weiser all the way across to Ontario.”
In July 2021, the planning commission denied the application. It also recommended that the Malheur County Court decline to treat the Head property as an essential gravel resource under state planning rules. The county court in August 2021 sided with the neighbors, rejecting the quarry.
“At this point, we’re thinking the process works,” said Mike Hastings, who moved to Jasmine Slope seven years ago. “We thought we were done.”
Then Lee resumed work on the Head ground last summer, the neighbors reported.
“We never imagined he would come back up here and start work,” Lord said.
Lee in an interview said he’s been digging test holes to determine the extent of gravel deposits. That work is needed, he said, to take another run at getting government permission to mine.
The excavation started in earnest last fall, and since then Lee has constructed towering dirt berms along one edge of the property.
Head, who spends winters in Arizona, said the berms were to screen off the work – and “for my privacy on my property” even though he doesn’t live there.
Lee said he installed the berms in part out of “irritation” with the neighbors. He said he and his crews have been photographed and filmed repeatedly by neighbors.
“I don’t like paparazzi myself and I’m not a famous person,” he said. “I was a little bit irritated. The berms was one way to keep people from encroaching on my space.”
When the excavation work started, the neighbors rallied again, reaching out to county, state and federal agencies about what they considered illegal mining.
They say county officials were slow to react.
“We’ve been so flabbergasted that the county wouldn’t do anything,” Lord said.
Hastings said the neighbors once again started documenting the work with photos and videos.
He recalled an instance when Lee was digging “right on my fence line, in a wetland area.”
He approached Lee with his phone, with Eric Evans, the county’s planning director, on the line.
“I went out there to try to talk to him and he wouldn’t get out of the tractor,” Hastings said. “He was laughing at me.”
Based on neighbor complaints, the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office in January cited Head, the property owner, for illegal mining. Head is disputing the ticket and a trial is scheduled for May 4 in Malheur County Justice Court.
“I’m not saying I’m not guilty of something,” Head said. “I don’t know what I’ve violated.”
Lee said he would appear at the trial.
“I’m looking forward to telling my side in court,” he said. “We’re not doing anything wrong.”
He said he would continue defying the neighbors.
“I’m not going to be stopped,” he said. He likened the people who moved to Jasmine Slope in an area of gravel quarries to those who move next to an airport and then complain about the noise.
But now, Lee is being stopped.
The state agency that regulates mining on Wednesday, March 8, ordered Lee and his company to stop. The state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries said in its suspension order that a review of “publicly available aerial imagery” showed that Lee and his company “have conducted surface mining.”
The agency ordered Lee “to suspend all surface mining operations” to include “removal of vegetation, construction of berms, stripping of topsoil or overburden, extraction, processing and the removal of stockpiled materials.”
Lee said the order was based on “fraudulent” information he would contest.
“I’m very careful what I do up there,” he said.
Contact Editor Les Zaitz: [email protected].