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Don't call it 'Blue Heron'

Willamette River separates views of bankrupt mill site

It's official: Don'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' by City Manager David Frasher as he works with a bankruptcy trustee's marketing team.

At a commission meeting last month, 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 enforce the 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 their various goals of public access, economic development and taking advantage of natural resources.

'We've got to dream big, because you can always winnow it down, and in my mind it's one of the premiere 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.'

It's more like the 'Willamette Falls challenge' for West Linn, where 40 acres of Blue Heron land is zoned industrial and residential but will likely remain undeveloped due to environmental constraints. In a memo last week to City Council, West Linn 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 flood plain.

'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 expects that the trustee will act quickly on its side of the river, allowing the city to start working with federal and state agencies on cleanup efforts this fall.

The property will present challenges to Oregon City as well, but its tactics seek to be more proactive. Oregon City figures its former mill land will remain in court after initial liquidation proceedings scheduled for September, 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.

County Commissioner Ann Lininger said she was most interested in the job opportunities and mixed use development that can be created at the 'gem' of natural beauty.

'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 saw 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 said he looked forward to including county officials in 'dozens of public meetings that would encourage the participation for hundreds of stakeholders.' He added that 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. '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.'