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City Faces A Well Of A Water Problem

April 9, 2007
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Harrisburg, Ore. - Oops. It seems that the city of Harrisburg drilled a well on someone else's property without permission.

Harrisburg, Ore. - Oops.

It seems that the city of Harrisburg drilled a well on someone else's property without permission.

Ten years ago.

And extracted as much as 400 gallons of water per minute since then.

City Administrator Bruce Cleeton told the City Council last week that Well No. 5, Harrisburg's most prolific drinking water source, probably does not sit on a narrow strip of land the city bought a decade ago specifically for the purpose of sinking a new well.

Instead, the thirsty, growing city apparently stuck its straw into a neighboring, half-acre parcel owned by Ellen Leigh of Battleground, Wash., Cleeton said.

"I'm at a loss to explain how it ended up on her property instead," said Cleeton, who was not working for Harrisburg at the time.

Both properties hug the east bank of the Willamette River south of the Highway 99E bridge.

Halsey real estate agent Dave Manley discovered the errant well last month. Leigh's Washington real estate agent had asked Manley to go inspect the parcel. Leigh, who had inherited the land, was preparing to sell it.

"He sent me the tax lot information and I went out to look at it and I thought, `Hey, this doesn't look quite right,' " Manley said.

The supposedly empty industrial lot contained a concrete slab and a 3 1/2 -foot-tall steel shelter, designed to protect and insulate the city's wellhead, valves and piping.

Manley called Leigh's Washington agent, who brought down Global Positioning System equipment so the pair could pace off the property together. They compared what they found with Linn County records, and then contacted Cleeton to let him know about the discrepancy.

Manley estimated that the well is about 20 feet over the property line.

A preliminary city investigation appeared to confirm a problem, Cleeton said.

After consulting with City Attorney Andy Noonan, Cleeton sent Leigh a letter apologizing for the "apparent error" and proposing that the parties try to settle the matter directly, rather than spending money on attorneys' fees. "If we can, we'd like to get this resolved amicably," he said.

Among factors considered by the city, Cleeton said, was whether Oregon's "adverse claims" law comes into play. Under that law, a party can take possession of property if it can show "an honest belief" that it owned the land, as well as "clear and convincing proof of actual, open, notorious, exclusive, continuous, and hostile possession" for at least 10 years.

Leigh inherited the land from her late father, who bought a lot of properties when they were auctioned as surplus, Manley said. The Linn County assessor's office lists the real market value of her entire parcel as $500. Cleeton has proposed that Leigh consider deeding the portion containing the well to the city as a charitable donation.

Manley said Leigh does not wish to comment on the matter until her attorney has had a chance to review it. He noted, however, that the property may well be worth more than the county's market valuation. And the city has clearly benefited from using it, he said.

"The fact is, they dug a well on this lady's property and they've been pumping water on it for nine years without any remuneration to her," he said. "What's the value of that?"

Source: The Register-Guard, April 4, 2007.

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