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Booze ban proposed to stem Sauvie Island’s drinking and driving problem

Sauvie Island is a popular spot for serious training and for fun jaunts to pick strawberries.
(Photo: J. Maus/BikePortland)

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife can no longer keep up with the amount of people who drink and drive on Sauvie Island. ODFW says the problem has become so bad in recent years they want to ban alcohol on the island’s popular public beaches.

Portions of the island under ODFW jurisdiction are yellow.
(Larger version here)

So far the proposal — which would impact Collins Beach, Walton Beach, and the beaches at Willow Bar Islands (see map) — has been met with jeers from people who see it as much ado about nothing and an example of government overreach. A poll on OregonLive.com last week showed 65 percent of respondents were against it.

This is a big issue for bicycle users because Sauvie is one of the most popular riding destinations in the region. Just 10 miles north of downtown Portland, its country roads and bucolic vistas tempt riders year-round. In warmer weather, the main parking lot is often full of people who drive to the island just to enjoy a nice bike ride. During the summer however, NW Reeder Road can get busy as people speed to the beaches on the northeastern edge of the island.

Sauvie Island resident Michael Rubenstein has been bicycling on the island since the 1970s. These days he’s a dedicated traffic safety advocate who sits on the Multnomah County Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee and works through the island’s neighborhood association to improve safety. In a recent phone interview he said banning alcohol on the beaches is, “One of the greatest proposals to improve road safety on Sauvie Island in the 40 years I’ve been biking out here.”

“I think the problem [of drunk driving] is very significant,” Rubenstein continued. “It’s gotten so bad that during the summer months my wife doesn’t let me ride on the roads after 12 noon.”

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Michael Rubenstein.
(Photo: Michael Rubenstein)

In a statement about the proposal, ODFW said that despite ramping up patrols and enforcement they’ve documented an increase in alcohol-related problems on Sauvie Island’s beaches. Last year 17 people were arrested for DUII as they left the beaches. ODFW says of all DUII arrests made by Oregon State Police in Columbia County, 36 percent were from people traveling away from the beaches. The amount of alcohol-related problems is partly a function of the huge numbers of people that visit Sauvie’s beaches. For the past five years, the number of visitors to the beach area from May through September is estimated to be 488,465 people. On a hot summer weekend, the number of people on the beaches can exceed 16,000 people a day. That’s more than first responders can handle.

ODFW’s proposal would prohibit the possession of beer and other alcoholic drinks from May 1st through September 30th. “This is when the number of people using wildlife area beaches is typically the highest and alcohol-related problems are most significant,” says Sauvie Island Wildlife Area manager Mark Nebeker.

Rubenstein feels an alcohol ban would have a big impact on safety. “We have a school on Reeder Road, there’s farm equipment, people walking dogs, people riding horses. And there are several blind curves on the road to the beaches. Any time someone’s perdeptions are altered by alcohol, they can’t respond fast enough on those blind s-curves.”

Despite the opposition we’ve seen in response to media coverage so far, Rubenstein thinks the locals will strongly support it. “I can’t imagine there’s a resident on the Island who would not approve of no drinking on the beaches.”

A public meeting to hear feedback about the proposal is scheduled for 7:00 to 9:00 pm on Wednesday February 28th at the Sauvie Island Grange Hall (note this meeting was rescheduled from February 22nd). The ban is also on the agenda of the March 16th meeting of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission in Salem.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org

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