Damp divide

Publicly owned wetlands near Banks are ground zero in the debate over a Metro measure on the Nov. 7 ballot

With its gray, leafless ash trees standing amidst pools of boggy water and strands of swaying marsh grass, the geography of the Killin Wetlands west of Banks would make a good set for a pre-Halloween horror movie.

Despite its eeriness, however, the swamp is actually an unspoiled natural haven, providing refuge for elusive birds such as the American Bittern and uncommon plant species like Geyer's Willow. It's also become Exhibit A in the case for, and against, the Metro greenspace measure on the Nov. 7 ballot.

The measure, much like one voters passed in 1995, would raise property taxes to allow Metro, the regional planning agency, to buy undeveloped land (See story page 2A). In fact, Metro four years ago spent $1.45 million to buy the entire 373 acre property, which includes roughly 200 acres of wetlands.

The agency, headquartered in Portland, regards it as a highly successful acquisition - the wetlands' soil is rich in peat, allowing it to support a diverse array of unique plants and animals.

'It's a one-of-a-kind wetlands,' said Susan McLain, the Metro councilor who represents Hillsboro, Cornelius, and Forest Grove, as well as the northern part of Beaverton. 'It's one of the most valuable pieces of property because of its unique ecology in the state of Oregon.'

On the other side of the marsh are some farmers who say government mismanagement of the wetlands has hindered their ability to plant and harvest crops.

While they don't dispute the land provides excellent wildlife habitat, a few of the swamp's neighbors complain that deteriorating drainage ditches and unchecked beaver dams on the property have elevated the water table. This has affected surrounding land to the point that farm machinery can't operate in some fields without getting stuck, they say.

'I think the concept is great to preserve some of these areas, but not at the cost of surrounding property owners,' said Tim Dierickx, a farmer who grows corn and other crops near the wetlands. 'What they've done is completely changed the drainage basin over the last five years.'

Dierickx leases the property from Bruce and Sheila Harris, who own a total of 120 acres adjacent to the Killin Wetlands. Dierickx, the Harris family and Joe Evers, Sheila's father, are troubled because decisions which affect their land and livelihood are made by a governmental agency that they can't hold accountable during elections.

Only people who live in Metro's voting district - which follows Portland's Urban Growth Boundary - are allowed to vote for Metro councilors and initiatives like the $227 million natural areas bond measure on this year's ballot.

As Evers notes, that means the people who own the land adjacent to Metro's property have no say at the ballot box. 'My daughter and son-in-law can't even vote on it,' he said.

Evers opposes the bond measure because projects like the Killin Wetlands run counter to Metro's goal of preserving agricultural land uses. 'Why do you take farmland out of production if you're saying you protect farmland?'

Restoring wetlands in the middle of working farmland seems pointless, critics say, when they're far outside the urban and suburban areas where Metro's constituents live.

'This is not Metro,' Dierickx said. 'This is the boondocks. Why do they need to be in the real estate business?'

McLain counters that future growth is inevitable in the Portland area and Metro needs to set aside natural areas like the Killin Wetlands now so that future generations will have more access to open spaces.

'You need to have long-term planning,' said McLain.

Although people living outside the agency's voting district can't participate in Metro elections, McLain said the council does take rural interests into account.

Early in September, she said, Metro passed a resolution that requires the agency to consult with the Oregon Department of Agriculture to determine whether any proposed land acquisition in an agricultural area will be detrimental to surrounding farms. McLain said the Washington County Farm Bureau would also participate in such evaluations.

'If they have problems or concerns about (Metro) buying farmland in Washington County, we're not going to buy it,' she said.

As for problems with flooding in the Killin Wetlands, McLain said Metro inherited the problem from the land's previous owner, Dallas Weber, who ceased his water-control efforts when he stopped farming the land years before selling it to Metro.

Jim Morgan, a natural resources and property management advisor for Metro, said that despite what some neighbors might believe, the agency did not remove tile drains - perforated pipes that drain water - from the land because such drains were never found.

Metro will remove beaver dams if they affect someone else's property, but Morgan said he wasn't aware of any that were causing problems. 'We never intentionally flood anyone's property,' he said.

He confirmed, however, that drainage ditches on the Killin Wetlands will be allowed to deteriorate, as part of the area's ecological restoration.

'We don't dig the ditches out,' he said. 'We're not trying to farm wetlands.'

Morgan said that natural climactic conditions may also be responsible for the raised water table on the Harris property. To figure out how to remedy any negative effects the Killin Wetlands have had on surrounding land, Metro plans to meet with the family later this month, he said.

'I don't know if we can find a real good solution,' he said, 'but we will look for one.'