County rightfully angry over senate bill
By Tony Ahern
The creation of a Jefferson County resort zone by the former County Commission at its final meeting in December was possibly its finest accomplishment.
A state senate bill wants to throw it in the garbage can.
Previous to the resort zone's adoption, it was impossible to place a resort in Jefferson County even if you wanted to. The resort zone, completed after a long public process, opened a door to the concept of a destination resort in Jefferson County, though a stringent permit process would have to be conducted before any earth could be moved.
Last week, Senate Bill 30 was introduced to ban any resorts in the Metolius River Basin, which encompasses basically any land with a pine tree on it in southwestern Jefferson County, the core of the resort zone.
Two resort projects currently in the planning stages prompted the senate bill: a relatively small one north of U.S. Highway 20 across from Suttle Lake; and a relatively large one on the eastern flank of Green Ridge.
The county's resort zone wasn't three months old before Salem stepped in with an effort to throw it out. Last week, a former legislator for Jefferson County -- Ben Westlund, now a state senator from Bend -- and our current representative, John Dallum, were part of the sponsorship of Senate Bill 30, a bill that would ban any resort in the basin.
The bill blindsided the current county commissioners, who have sent off letters to Westlund and Dallum asking them to reconsider, and to respect the concept of local control over local planning and zoning.
Since the local uproar, both Westlund and Dallum -- probably sensing some fire on their necks -- have taken verbal steps backward from the bill, framing it as a jumpoff point to conversation and discussion on resorts in the Metolius Basin. The hasn't appeased the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners, none of whom was spoken to before the bill was presented.
Westlund indicated the bill was submitted on behalf of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs. The tribes have long been on record against development in the Metolius basin -- an understandable, consistent position on their part -- but I think even they were surprised by the bill. Their lobbyist said he wasn't involved in its writing.
Another state senator -- Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, daughter of the legendarily philanthropic Johnson family of Redmond, whose family has long owned Camp Sherman-area property -- played a role in birthing of the bill. Along with, I assume, development encroaching on her neck of the woods, she's concerned about the impacts the two resorts could have on the quantity and quality of water feeding the Metolius.
Apparently while they chose not to speak to the county about the bill, Westlund and Dallum spoke to Johnson.
Our senator, Ted Ferrioli of John Day, has a reputation of being effective in Salem. His standing in Jefferson County is harder to figure out. Redistricting a few years back put us under the John Day Republican's representation, yet he doesn't seem too interested in what's happening here; case in point, his sitting on his hands during the state prison funding debates last year. I don't think Ferrioli has weighed in on this yet, and I don't know if he will.
Certainly the legislators' bill is a slap at local control, the local planning process and the land-use appeals system already in place. Through a wider lens, it's also another wall of limitation being thrown at Jefferson County.
Is there any county in Oregon with more inherent limitations on development?
The reservation takes up the northwestern corner; the southwestern corner is a national forest; a federal grassland dominates the county's center core; and massive private ranch land-holdings cover the eastern sector of the county. The state parks system has dibs on our biggest draw, Lake Billy Chinook. Land-use regulations basically lock up development throughout the 56,000-acre irrigation district surrounding our communities. Even access to our county's entries on the Deschutes River is now controlled.
If the state and federal governments want to finish the job and just make Jefferson County a park, go right ahead. But at least back that up with a few million dollars a year to supplement our tax-dependent services.
The current County Commission is urging Westlund and Dallum to reconsider their stance. Here's another entity that should be concerned: the Culver School District. The Colson resort project, encompassing several hundreds acres of potential high-value resort, would be in its tax district. Culver school officials should be right behind county commissioners in fighting SB 30.
The Metolius Basin is an incredible aspect of Jefferson County, and we should be vigilant in keeping it as such. But the current land-use permit system, and its accompanying appeals process, is guard enough. A potential resort would have to go through a wringer before it saw the light of day.
With the interest from Warm Springs, Camp Sherman and potentially other environmental organization, you can bet any resort the county would allow in the Metolius Basin would be highly scrutinized before obtaining county approval. Even if it received local approval, a resort would most certainly be appealed to the state level.
Senate Bill 30 is unnecessary, was a slap at Jefferson County and the vast majority of its citizens, and it should be withdrawn.