MT. VERNON – A 6,100-acre tract of ranchland near Mt. Vernon could become one of the largest state parks if a proposed land exchange – one that also involves a golf course development on the Oregon Coast – is approved.
The proposal sparked controversy last week in Grant County, with members of the County Court and local ranchers raising concerns about a loss of private land from the tax rolls. The ranch owner, however, has stressed the benefits that would come from continuing active management on a spectacular parcel of land.
Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department officials this week cautioned that the land deal is in the early stages, and stressed they are open to discussions about ways to offset any hit to local property tax revenues.
The Oregon State Parks and Recreation Commission is scheduled to discuss the proposal at its meeting this Wednesday in Coos Bay. The commission will not vote on the proposal this week, but will hear a staff presentation and take public comment.
The complex exchange would involve property in Coos and Lincoln counties, and allow the state to acquire much of the Grouse Mountain Ranch in Grant County.
The ranchland, which would be added to the state park system, includes pine and juniper forest, bunchgrass prairie, riparian bottomlands and salmon habitat in Beech Creek. It also has a residence, office and outbuildings, the report noted.
At the Courthouse in Grant County, officials last week voiced concern about further attrition of the tax base in a county that already is more than 70 percent public lands.
Assessor Lane Burton noted that the proposal comes as the county is monitoring two other land exchange-style situations, including one deal that could put 13,000 private forest acres into federal ownership.
“It seems to be snowballing,” Burton said.
Ranch owner George Meredith said this week he was disappointed by the negative reaction to the proposal, which he sees as a wonderful opportunity for Grant County. He’s confident that OPRD would be able to continue the stewardship and active management that he and his wife Priscilla have undertaken over the past 13 years on the ranch.
He also said the tax impact isn’t as great as initially projected by county officials – and that even that pales in comparison to the benefits of continuing active management.
Burton last week said the ranch pays more than $18,000 in property taxes a year, not including state fire patrol assessments.
Meredith confirmed that total, but said the land deal would affect only a portion of those taxes – some $6,000 a year. The balance stems from the Merediths’ own home and 200-plus acres – property they intend to keep, so it would stay on the tax rolls.
He also contends that the property tax issue is being taken out of proportion since the real value is what comes from the work being done on the land. He said projects in the past decade or more have bolstered wildlife habitat, improved meadows and forest, restored a fire-affected landscape, and created jobs for local contractors – an array of direct and indirect benefits to the community and its economy.
“And I believe that State Parks will continue with those activities,” he said.
Meredith said his decision to sell the bulk of the ranch came as he and his wife sought to scale back on their workload.
“We’re getting into our later years,” he said. Anticipating that actively managing 6,000-plus acres will become too much for them in the future, they began looking for someone whose vision matched their own to take on the property. They hope the change will be benefit the people of Oregon, and particularly of Grant County, he said.
“I feel in my heart that this is a very positive opportunity for the community,” he said.
He stressed the strong feelings he and his wife have for the land, a property they bought after searching across the West for more than 10 years.
“We were looking for a piece of land that had this kind of restoration potential,” he said. “I can remember the day we first went out to see this property. My wife said, ‘George, this is it.’”
County Commission Boyd Britton said last week he respects a private property owner’s right to sell, but he also felt a need to deal with the tax issue. Like Burton, he sees a pattern of state and federal agencies taking over private lands without adequate compensation to affected counties. He likened it to “a death by a thousand cuts.”
Britton said he would draft a letter to the Parks Commission, outlining the county’s concerns, and Burton and County Judge Scott Myers said they also would sign it. Grant County Commissioner Chris Labhart was out of town as the issue came to light.
The Grant County Stockgrowers echoed the concerns in a July 14 letter to the Parks Commission, saying the group opposes “any acquisition or trade that takes one acre off the tax rolls and out of production.”
OPRD spokesman Chris Havel said Tuesday the department is willing to talk about ways to offset the tax burden.
He also noted that the intent, if the deal proceeds, would be to continue the work that the Merediths have done. He said the department does have agricultural leases on some park lands, and also makes use of staff members with silviculture, wildlife and stewardship expertise.
Havel has described the ranch as “park ready” – which isn’t the same as turnkey. He said the term is shorthand for land that’s high quality for a park. The location and large scale offer opportunities for recreation that could be a draw for the region and complement the other attractions in Grant County, he noted.
According to state rules, exchanges like this one must provide overwhelming public benefit – a premise that raised Britton’s eyebrows.
“Come on,” he said. “If it was such an overwhelming benefit, why didn’t they come to a court meeting to talk about it?”
Britton said aside from some vague rumors, he first heard about the proposed deal this week from a constituent, Long Creek rancher Sharon Livingston.
Judge Myers said he first heard about the proposal in February when two OPRD officials stopped by to chat, but they asked him “to keep it under my hat.” He said he agreed out of respect for the Merediths.
Britton was displeased that the county’s residents hadn’t been able to weigh in earlier.
“I’m very concerned about this deal, and so disappointed in OPRD, that they would ask Judge Myers to be silent about this,” Britton said.
Havel noted that in real estate proposals, even involving the state, the private parties have an expectation of privacy up to a point. He also said the proposal is not a done deal, and that future discussions will entail extensive public input.
“If this goes through, and that’s still an if, the next step would be for us to work with the neighbors, the community, the county, and others,” he said.
The earliest the commission could act on the proposal is at its September 24-25 meeting in Condon.
People wishing to comment on the exchange can write to: Attn: Bandon Proposal, 725 Summer Street Suite C, Salem OR 97301; or by email to OPRD.email@example.com. The deadline for comment is Aug. 9.
Here’s how the deal would work, according to an Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) staff report:
The state would convey some 280 acres of Bandon State Natural Area – a tract next to Highway 101 – to Bandon Biota, a corporation owned by golf course developer Mike Keiser.
In exchange, Bandon Biota would pay at least $300,000 for control of gorse, a noxious and invasive plant, on nearby state properties, and would transfer two parcels of land – approximately 208 acres – to the state park system. Bandon Biota also would pay up to $2.95 million to help the state buy the oceanfront Whale Cove property in Lincoln County and 6,100 acres of forest, prairie and riparian land in Grant County.
According to a staff report to the commission, Bandon Biota would cover the entire $2.5 million price tag for the Grant County acreage at the Grouse Mountain Ranch, near Mt. Vernon.Read more on bluemountaineagle.com.