MT. VERNON – A meeting Monday night in Mt. Vernon produced strong testimony about a proposed land sale and swap involving Grouse Mountain Ranch property in Grant County and some coastal lands.
The Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) hosted the meeting at the Mt. Vernon Community Hall, as well as one last Friday night in Bandon. The state agency proposes to trade 280 acres of the 878-acre Bandon State Natural Area to Bandon Biota, a private company owned by golf course developer Michael Keiser. Bandon Biota proposes to use part of the land to create a 27-hole walking links golf course.
In exchange, Bandon Biota would pay at least $300,000 for control of the invasive plant gorse on nearby state park properties, transfer two land parcels near Bandon totaling 208 acres into the state park system, and pay as much as $2.95 million to help purchase two other properties: oceanfront property in Lincoln County known as Whale Cove, and 6,100 acres from Grouse Mountain Ranch, north of Mt. Vernon, for a state park.
State Rep. Cliff Bentz R-Ontario District 60 told the group he represents the poorest counties in the state – including Grant – which cannot afford to lose taxed land.
He thanked Grouse Mountain Ranch owner George Meredith for a tour he gave of his ranch.
“I understand good management – they are doing a good job, but the county is broke,” Bentz said.
Several, including Bentz, said they felt the state agency is unable to maintain the land it currently oversees.
“How do you expect us to believe that you’ll manage 6,000 acres?” said Jeff Thomas of Kimberly, adding, “What happens when your funding goes down? The adjoining landowners will suffer because you can’t maintain the property.”
John Potter, a Parks staff member said they’re looking at the property with the long term in mind, noting they plan to take care of potential impacts. He said the benefits of having the park would take time, possibly a generation or two.
Ken Holliday said having 70 percent public land in the county is enough, and said that there is nothing unique about Grouse to meet that part of the Parks requirement.
“There is nothing unique,” he said. “In fact others have property that is more unique. The only thing unique is you’re leveraging our property to buy that property.”
Morgan said it’s not just about uniqueness – “It’s the whole package.”
“What appears outstanding to us, may not appear outstanding to you,” Havel said.
Scott Cotter spoke in favor of the project, noting the State Parks made the Willamette River a more pleasing experience. He noted that if the fences and weeds could be dealt with in perpetuity it would be good for the project.
County Commissioner Boyd Britton said that unlike previous park projects, this one lacks “a plan, a vision.”
“This may be the best thing in the world, but we don’t know what it looks like. … You haven’t told us anything about it,” he said. “If this thing is so good, take some land and put it back into private ownership.”
still on the table
Meanwhile, the Grant County Court will go ahead with an Aug. 21 hearing on a proposed land exchange ordinance after an attempt to pass the measure on an emergency basis this week failed by a 2-1 vote. The hearing is set for 11 a.m.
The proposal drew about 14 people to last week’s County Court meeting, and produced testimony both for and against an ordinance to deal with sales of private land to public or nonprofit entities.
Supporters were visibly unhappy about the outcome, as County Judge Scott Myers and Commissioner Chris Labhart voted against passage and Britton cast the sole vote in favor.
An emergency ordinance would have gone into effect immediately. The Court could still pass a regular ordinance, which would take effect 90 days after passage.
“I’m tired of the County Court dragging its feet,” rancher MaryEllen Brooks told the Court. “You didn’t do the job you were asked to do.”
However, the Court also heard from Meredith, who asked the Court to clarify if the measure was directed at his land.
The proposed ordinance would require the assessor to notify agencies or nonprofits about land values when they contemplate a purchase, and would withhold the county’s consent to any deal that results “in a net loss of ad valorem taxes or special assessments to Grant County or the cities and taxing districts.” It also would require that agencies structure such deals as exchanges of like-value land, rather than sales, to preserve the county’s taxable base.
Court officials denied they were acting to stop the Meredith land sale, but also acknowledged that the intent of an emergency action was to get the ordinance in place before OPRD held its public meetings on the land deal.
“This is not directed at you, in my opinion,” Britton told Meredith. He and others said the county has wanted such an ordinance for some time, and previously passed resolutions twice in an attempt “to stop the bleeding” of privately owned land from the tax rolls.
Britton said that in addition to the Grouse Mountain property, the county is concerned about a Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation proposal for D.R. Johnson forest lands south of Prairie City, and a possible sale of land in Grant County that is owned by Hood River County.
Meredith said the ordinance would have a chilling effect on private property transactions, making it too onerous for agencies to pursue such acquisitions.
“We consider it to be further government encroachment on our private property rights,” he said.
Local Realtor Jim Sproul said the ordinance doesn’t oppose the state acquisition, but calls for it as an exchange of land with similar value – to keep the county tax rolls whole.
“This is not against private property rights,” said Sproul. “Sixty-four percent of this county belongs to the government now. We can’t afford to lose any more.”
However, Meredith said the action was “out of all proportion” to the taxes at issue.
He said the property taxes for the land he proposes to sell come to about $6,000 a year. He contends that OPRD’s investment in continued maintenance, restoration and other activities would be 30 times that.
Instead of an ordinance, he suggested that the Court “focus on substantive opportunities to bring real benefits to the people of Grant County.”
Britton said he does endorse the idea of a state park at Grouse Mountain – “I think it’s a great idea” – but he wants the state to return some other land to private production uses.
Labhart, who said he has concerns about enforcement and legality of the measure, questioned the need for emergency action.
Long Creek rancher and teacher Sharon Livingston said the county has been slow to react to the erosion of private property and land taken out of production.
“We’re now reacting,” she said. “Thirty years ago, we should have been stopping these things.”
King Williams said the county is looking at as much as 30,000 acres of land going from private to public in the next year or so, when all the proposals are added together.
Zach Williams said the state set up the rush by keeping the property deal quiet until it was nearly a done deal.
Mike Smith agreed. “If that park is that important, somebody at the state can come up with an exchange,” he said.
Myers said the county could be overstepping its bounds by interfering in private property transactions, and he was concerned about the potential for legal challenges. He said attorney fees could far exceed the property tax revenues in question.
Meanwhile, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission isn’t expected to take action on the proposed deal until its Sept. 25 meeting in Condon.Read more on bluemountaineagle.com.