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Judge rules that yurt and trailer complex developed in timber zone by Yachats businesswoman must be removed

A woman stands in front of a truck and several yurts.
Quinton Smith
Yachats News
Linda Hetzler and her husband, Thomas Smith, are fighting Lincoln County’s order to unhook three yurts and a travel trailer from the septic system on their 20-acre hilltop property and remove them.

This story was originally published on YachatsNews.com and is used with permission.

A judge said Tuesday that a Yachats businesswoman’s complex of four yurts and a recreational vehicle on 20 acres of forest land violates zoning ordinances.

Lincoln County Circuit Judge Sheryl Bachart agreed with Lincoln County’s argument that the housing created by Linda Hetzler and her husband, Thomas Smith, is not permitted in a timber conservation zone and connecting the structures to a single septic system is a health hazard.

Bachart approved the county’s motion for a summary judgement seeking to remove the yurts and trailer from the 20-acre property off Starr Creek Road just north of Yachats. Hetzler indicated she would appeal Bachart’s decision.

The year-long dispute between Hetzler, Smith and the county started when they erected housing on a 20-acre parcel she and her husband bought in 2021 and connected the structures to a septic system serving a former manufactured home. There are seven people living there now, she told the judge Tuesday.

Hetzler and Smith started construction of a building — with permits — on an adjacent 15-acre lot. Both properties are zoned as “timber conservation” meaning that they are allowed one residential dwelling.

A woman and a man sit at a courtroom desk in front of a judge
Quinton Smith
Yachats News
Linda Hetzler, right, explains her housing project to Lincoln County Circuit Judge Sheryl Bachart during a hearing Tuesday as assistant county counsel Douglas Holbrook, left, listens.

The differences in arguments by assistant county counsel Douglas Holbrook and Hetzler during Tuesday’s 40-minute hearing were stark.

Holbrook focused on how zoning rules did not allow more than one residence on the property, that the yurts and travel trailer were not legal residences, that the property does not qualify for any other type of housing, and that the strain on the septic system is a health hazard.

Hetzler, who was representing herself and husband, argued that the people living there were doing agriculture work and therefore the compound could qualify as a temporary forest camp. But – unlike the county – Hetzler did not offer expert testimony or affidavits from others saying how the housing was OK and only said she had talked with officials in other counties about her issues.

She also criticized the county planning department for not working with her to help solve the issue – although it had said from the beginning the complex was not allowed under current zoning rules.

“I feel I have bent over backwards to work with the county …” she told Bachart. “It’s become a power struggle with accusations of lying and cheating. I’m committed to the community and the people who live here. I’m not an axe murderer. I’m not someone trying to commit fraud.”

Hetzler said the property had been logged 40 years ago, ignored since then and was overgrown with alder trees that needed thinning when they bought it. Her goal was to sell firewood and other products.

Bachart asked “what’s temporary” when it comes to the housing.

“I’m not sure,” Hetzler replied.

“What kind of time frame are we looking at?” Bachart asked.

“I’m not sure,” Hetzler said again. “Living in a yurt is not something you want to do for a long time … but generally until the property is cleaned up and made safe.”

Hetzler and Smith own the popular Drift Inn restaurant and motel in Yachats.

Two adjoining yurts and a trailer stand behind a row of potted plants
Quinton Smith
Yachats News
Yachats businesswoman Linda Hetzler set up  three yurts and a travel trailer and hooked them up a septic system on a 20-acre parcel off the  Starr Creek Road neighborhood north of Yachats.

County fires back

In the county’s 14-page motion – and in affidavits filed by three building officials – Holbrook said the complex does not fall under state or county rules allowing a temporary forest camp, and that Hetzler admitted previously that the residents worked in her restaurant.

The motion called them “bootlegged dwellings” not allowed in zoning for timber conservation properties.

“In this case, the defendants have flagrantly violated DEQ septic rules and therefore don’t legally have anything like a forest work camp,” the motion said. “It is a farce to believe what the defendants have built is anything more or less than a residential rental investment — in a place and way that it is a violation of local and state law, including fire code, building code and the landlord tenant act.”

“The dwellings are illegally placed … and are creating a public health danger by severely over taxing the septic system,” the motion said. “They have defiantly built without permits for plumbing, septic, and lied on their electrical permit to say the electrical circuits were going to be accessory structures not dwellings …”

In summarizing its request to have the buildings removed, the county said Hetzler and Smith “have ignored warnings and the law, and have added to their investment real estate holdings in at an impermissble place and in an impermissible way.

“These are not ‘temporary’ nor related to any bonafide commercial forest use,” the motion said. “There is no indication of compliance with the laws regarding temporary forest labor camps and significant evidence of defendant’s non-compliance with the laws regarding temporary forest labor camps. The overtaxing of the septic is of great concern to the plaintiff, and there is no way to mitigate that without removing the unlawful dwellings.”

Bachart, who patiently asked questions of Hetzler during the proceedings, said she wanted to rule on merits of the case, not because Hetzler was representing herself, had missed required response dates on motions and provided no affidavits or witnesses in support of her arguments.

Bachart said her ruling depended on a “very narrow legal issue” as to whether the complex violated zoning and septic rules, that it was clear to her that the complex is not a temporary forest camp and that the county’s exhibits showed the yurts and trailer “meet the definition of a dwelling, clearly.”

With that she granted Holbrook’s motion for a summary judgement, and directed him to prepare an order that she could sign within 30 days.

The county is also in the process of bringing its fines for code or zoning violations into line with new state of Oregon penalties.

Under the new rules – which county commissioners are expected to approve Wednesday – the county is proposing a four-fold increase in fines. A one-time violation by an individual could bring a fine ranging from $220 to $2,000 a day; the fine for corporations could range from $220 to $4,000 a day.

Quinton Smith founded YachatsNews in 2019 after a 40-year career as a reporter and editor for United Press International and three Oregon newspapers. He worked in various editing positions at The Oregonian from 1984 to 2008 where he led a reporting team that won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News.