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Council Finally Accepts 45 Acres Of Ross Island From Pamplin

Portland leaders, environmentalists, and one of Oregon’s leading businessmen say that Halloween 2007 will be long remembered as a historic day.

After years of stalled negotiations over the future of Ross Island, the island’s owner,  Robert Pamplin Jr., Wednesday signed over ownership of part of it to the city.  In the end, the wrangling appears to have given all sides what they wanted, as Rob Manning reports.

The talk at the city council was of Ross Island’s future, and the generosity of Robert Pamplin. Commissioner Randy Leonard called the 45-acre gift “historic.”

Randy Leonard: “This is beyond a gift, this is beyond philanthropy, this is an historic moment creating a new era for a piece of property that Portlanders have really salivated over for generations.”

Commissioner Erik Sten took Leonard’s comments a step further, when he voted to approve the agreement.

Erik Sten: “This is a terrific step forward and a legacy for what I think ought to be called ‘Pamplin Island’. Aye.”

Robert Pamplin: “I thank you very much for your gracious remarks and comments, and for all of us, this is an occasion, I believe, of ‘noble fulfillment’.”

Pamplin  praised the city leaders and conservationists that months ago, he’d been at odds with over legal details of the donation agreement. He handed out rocks from Ross Island, to mark the occasion. And after years of sometimes stalled negotiations and bitter disagreements, Pamplin clarified what he says was his intent from the beginning.

Robert Pamplin: “From the outset, I stated it was my desire to donate a portion of Ross Island to the city of Portland. But it was also my obligation to be sensitive to the retention of 650 family wage jobs with protecting the environment and securing conservation. All of those were very dear and important to me, and they had to strike a delicate and important balance.”

There were a number of issues making agreement difficult, but environmentalists say the toughest was miscommunication.

Mike Houck is with the Urban Greenspaces Institute – and has been a leading advocate of public ownership of Ross Island. He says sitting down face-to-face helped.

Mike Houck: “We looked each other in the eye, and were very frank with one another. We definitely had a ‘let our hair down – everything on the table’ kind of conversation, and things started turning for the better, during and after that conversation.”

Issues that seemed insurmountable at the outset, got cleared up one by one. The city accepted liability for future cleanup, once it proved the area was not contaminated. Meantime, over the years, the size of the Ross Island donation shrank - 45 acres is a few times smaller than previous verbal offers.

Bob Sallinger with Portland Audubon says if you think about how hard it was to negotiate a this deal – a bigger piece may have been impossible.

Bob Sallinger: “In the end, what the city got was the most significant ecological piece of the island, the piece with bald eagle’s nest on it, a piece that’s uncontaminated. And honestly, I would really question, whether, if the donation had been bigger, and there was contamination on it, if the city could have been able to accept those pieces.”

Pamplin is obligated to clean up the lagoon his company, Ross Island Sand and Gravel, dredged for decades. But public access isn’t allowed on the city-owned section, as a condition of the donation. Most of the rest of the island remains privately owned. But conservationist, Mike Houck, says the island’s new owners can’t ignore the public curiosity.

Mike Houck: “There are 100 times more kayakers and canoers paddling around those islands than there were even five years ago. I mean that’s phenomenal, the increase on the Willamette. But the reality is, as Ross Island becomes more known as a publicly owned, or partially publicly owned space, they’re going to ask the obvious question ‘why can’t we go to that island?’.”

Houck says now that after years of negotiations, the city will have the help of environmental groups in answering those questions. At the same time, Pamplin and the Port of Portland, which owns a small sliver of Ross Island, say they’re interested in coming up with a comprehensive restoration plan for the entire land mass in Portland’s main waterway.

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