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Willamette separates views of mill site

Land seen as an opportunity in Oregon City could be a challenge for West Linn

It's official: You shouldn't refer to the 22 acres of bankrupt paper mill property in Oregon City as 'Blue Heron.'

The real estate bonanza will now be known as the 'Willamette Falls opportunity' in Oregon City, according to city manager David Frasher, as he works with a bankruptcy trustee's property marketing team.

At a commission meeting last month, Oregon City Mayor Doug Neeley joked that he would hit a buzzer anytime he heard a reference to Blue Heron, and Frasher offered him a can of silly string to help in his enforcement of language.

Joking aside, the property has become serious business for Oregon City, West Linn and surrounding Clackamas County, as government agencies prepare for redevelopment of the site according to their various goals of public access, economic development and taking advantage of natural resources.

In addition to 22 acres in Oregon City, the now defunct paper mill owned nearly 40 acres on the other side of the Willamette River in West Linn's Willamette neighborhood.

'We've got to dream big, because you can always winnow it down, and in my mind it's one of the premier development sites in North America,' Frasher said. 'I get really compelled by that site because there are so many years of American and Native American history - it's the American dream of interplay between industry and the environment.'

West Linn

It's more like the 'Willamette Falls challenge' for West Linn, where 39 acres of Blue Heron land is zoned industrial and low- or medium-density residential but will likely remain undeveloped because of environmental constraints.

In a memo last week to the West Linn City Council, city manager Chris Jordan pointed out that 15 acres consists of an industrial retention pond that could require a major environmental cleanup, while most of the remaining area lies in the floodplain.

'What the city is interested in at this point is trying to protect any environmentally sensitive areas and trying to make sure that the public has as much access - visual and physical - to the property as possible,' Jordan said.

West Linn officials expect that the trustee overseeing liquidation of Blue Heron's property will act quickly on their side of the river, allowing the city to start working with federal and state agencies on cleanup efforts as soon as this fall.

Oregon City

The former mill property will present challenges to Oregon City as well, but its tactics seek to be more proactive. Oregon City figures the land will remain in court after initial liquidation proceedings scheduled for September, and so it may soon start a public process to create a new master plan for the property in which any buyer would be invited to participate.

'If we had several million dollars lying around to purchase the property and put easements on it, that would be great, but that's fraught with liabilities, mostly because we don't have the money, but also because there are a lot of unknowns that the city might not want to take on,' Frasher said.

In a work session to be scheduled this summer, Frasher hopes to initiate a visioning process for the site that develops the groundwork for prioritizing pedestrian access, environmentally responsible development and protection for historic structures.

Clackamas County

From the county's perspective, Commissioner Ann Lininger said she is most interested in the job opportunities and mixed-use development that can be created at the 'gem' of natural beauty, rather than focusing only on prospects of obtaining water discharge capacity at the site.

'Our staff is looking at a way for the community to benefit from obtaining an outfall permit, but I would not want them to do anything that would stand in the way of economic development,' Lininger said.

County Commissioner Paul Savas sees little potential for any reduction in sewer rates by the county obtaining the permits; the county instead hopes to meet future demand and environmental regulation by purchasing authorization to release more treated water into the Willamette River.

'There might be some alternatives that need to be studied to see if there are some cost savings, but most of the potential benefits are environmental,' Savas said.

Frasher looks forward to including county officials in 'dozens of public meetings that would encourage the participation for hundreds of stakeholders.' He said he wants a plan that stays off the shelf and survives multiple election cycles.

'It's a design challenge and design opportunity to take advantage of the unique features that would allow for most of those, if not all of the priorities,' Frasher said.

He continued,'If it's done correctly, the community will have the support system in place to advance legislation and investment over time. That's why it's so important to be inclusive and work toward consensus.'