Senate bill targets county resorts
- Holly M. Gill
- Madras Pioneer - News
Bill would ban resorts near Metolius Basin
When the county approved a new comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance late last year, officials expected appeals. What they didn't expect was an effort by state legislators to preempt their zoning.
Last week, the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners learned that several state senators and representatives had introduced a bill in the Oregon Legislature to prohibit a destination resort in or within three miles of the Metolius River Basin.
If passed in the Legislature, the bill would nullify part of the county's 18-month-long public effort to replace the 23-year-old comprehensive plan, and update the zoning ordinance passed in 2003.
For the first time in county history, the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance -- signed by the commission Dec. 27, 2006 -- designated two areas in the county for destination resorts. Both are within three miles of the Metolius Basin.
"In general, the county is dismayed about the bill's provisions superceding the local process -- a local process that incorporated citizen involvement from beginning to end, was well thought out, and followed state laws regarding destination resort siting," commented County Counsel David Allen.
Last week, the commission drafted a letter to Sen. Ben Westlund, D-Tumalo, expressing its concern about his sponsorship of the bill, introduced on behalf of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
Contacted on Friday, Westlund said that the bill was drawn up by the Legislative Counsel at his request. "The perspective that people should understand is, when you draft a bill, you've got to have a starting point."
Long an advocate of destination resorts, Westlund said he has supported nearly every one proposed in his district, encompassing Deschutes County, which has at least half a dozen destination resorts.
But in the case of the Metolius Basin, he said, "I don't think one of the most special places in Oregon -- maybe even in this country -- should be changed by a destination resort."
Besides Westlund, the chief sponsor, two other senators and five representatives, including Rep. John Dallum, R-The Dalles, who represents Jefferson County, have signed on as sponsors.
"We are dismayed that a legislator from our area would support such an end run around our local authority and established land-use appellate procedure in the state of Oregon," Allen noted in a letter to both Westlund and Dallum.
When Dallum first read the proposed bill, he decided to become a sponsor so he could be involved in the process, he explained last week, from his Salem office.
"I'd rather be in the bus than run alongside," said Dallum, who is organizing a meeting this week for representatives of both sides of the issue. "I can't organize this meeting unless I'm on the bus. I'm trying to get the parties to the table so this doesn't become legislation."
Commission Chairman Mike Ahern said that after the long public process, "I'm not interested in compromise."
Simply designating potential areas for large destination resorts -- as the county has done -- doesn't guarantee that plans would be approved during the land-use process. Water or transportation issues, for example, could derail a developer's entire plan.
"When there is a resort plan, they have to go through the whole process again," he said.
Under the recently-passed comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance, the two properties eligible for large destination resorts include a 20,000-plus acre parcel owned by Ponderosa Land and Cattle Co., and a 627-acre parcel owned by Dutch Pacific Resources -- both in southwestern Jefferson County.
Ponderosa Land and Cattle Co. is owned by William Colson, of Vancouver, Wash., a developer who is in the process of selling Holiday Retirement Corp., which owns 299 retirement communities across the United States and Canada.
The Colsons are represented by Rick Allen, former Madras mayor and county commissioner (no relation to County Counsel David Allen), who has filed as a lobbyist for Ponderosa Land and Cattle Co.
Allen pointed out that the property, which is east of Green Ridge, is accessed by Indian Ford Road, off Highway 20, between Sisters and Black Butte Ranch. The Colsons have owned it since 1999.
"There has been no decision on the part of the Colsons about what to build, when to build, or how big," he said. However, "They plan on building a destination resort, like Black Butte -- right across the street."
In response to concerns expressed by opponents about potential water usage, Allen said that critics are getting the "cart ahead of the horse."
"The people opposed to this are trying to resolve the water rights question," he said. "That discussion doesn't take place in this process."
Because the property is located east of Green Ridge, it drains into the Deschutes Basin -- not the Metolius Basin, Allen said, stressing that under state law, for every gallon of water taken out, they would have to replace a gallon. "That's how basic it is."
Allen hopes to work with both Westlund and Dallum to revise the bill. "I think that all of us care about the Metolius," he said. "They're both good people. Good people will come to a reasonable decision in this."
For the past couple of weeks, Allen has gone back and forth to Salem to visit with legislators. "It's all negotiations; it's all politics," he said.
"Jefferson County spent over a year with citizen involvement, took testimony, both written and oral," he noted. "They removed the vast majority of land eligible for resorts. This is an end run by those who didn't get everything, to go to the Legislature to get the final pieces they wanted."
Prior to the introduction of the Senate bill, five separate petitioners had already notified the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals that they intended to appeal the new ordinances. Passage of the Senate bill would make those appeals irrelevant.
In addition to the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the petitioners include Betsy Johnson, a state senator from Scappoose, who owns property in the Camp Sherman area; Friends of the Metolius; Central Oregon Landwatch; and Tomas Finnegan Ryan, a Portland attorney who also owns property at Camp Sherman.
Although the tribes were not involved in the drafting of the Senate bill, according to lobbyist Michael Mason, they support the bill.
"The tribes are working very hard, in a concerted effort with the federal government, to restore salmon upstream of Round Butte Dam, and the Metolius is a critical piece of that," he said.
Calling the Metolius the "most pristine river in the state," Mason said the tribes have already banned development above Lake Billy Chinook on their side of the river.
"This would just be the state taking one step in that direction," he said. "There are some significant reduction in flow issues in the upper river. We do have some questions about what a destination resort in the basin would do to the river flows."
Developer Shane Lundgren of Dutch Pacific Resources envisions an environmentally-oriented vacation community at the gateway to the Mount Jefferson Wilderness -- but he'd be happy if the whole Metolius Basin was turned into a national park.
"What we're proposing is specifically geared toward enhancement of the basin," he said. "It's not the standard destination resort model. Our idea is extreme low impact, zero carbon footprint."
A fourth-generation resident of Camp Sherman, Lundgren purchased the square mile of property -- formerly owned by Weyerhauser -- in 2005, with the intention of cleaning it up.
"Our piece has literally been clearcut four times; it's not a pristine piece," he said. "We've been in there the last year trying to clean it up."
The property is just over a half-mile from Highway 20. "You're literally pulling off the highway and you're there," he said.
Under Oregon law, developers of large destination resorts are required to spend $9.83 million on public recreational facilities, which usually end up being golf courses, he said.
"What we're proposing is to take that $9.83 million and spend it on clean up and enhancement of the four streams running into the Metolius, creating wildlife habitat, migration bridges for deer, so you see where the deer are crossing the roads and funnel them," Lundgren explained.
In the decades that he has lived near the Metolius, Lundgren has observed that the flow of the headwaters has been consistent. "At our home, we haven't seen any drop in the river levels," he said.
Kyle Gorman, regional manager for the Oregon Water Resources Department, confirmed that the although the Metolius shows cyclical variation according to climatic conditions, "It's very stable.
"If you look at stream flow systems across the state, they can vary widely," Gorman said. The Metolius "varies 10 to 20 percent on an annual basis."
"I think the water issue is significant; that's why we're proposing no golf course," said Lundgren. "I think the debate for the viability of these things should be an open and public one."
Lundgren sees long-term benefit to the county, not only from tax revenue, but from the innovative approach he has proposed.
"It could set Jefferson County apart -- where a new thought process was taking place," he said. "It's a great opportunity for Jefferson County to be in the lead."
In both Deschutes and Crook counties, destination resorts have helped the counties diversify. "The top taxpayers in Deschutes County are all resort properties: Black Butte, Eagle Crest, Pronghorn, Sunriver," said Rick Allen. "Brasada is already, or soon will become, the largest taxpayer in Crook County."
Allen anticipates a similar occurrence with the Ponderosa development in Jefferson County.
"As the thing is developed, it will become the largest taxpayer in Jefferson County," said Allen, noting that the resort would be located in, and help support, the Culver School District.
Whether or not the destination resorts ultimately receive approval, Allen believes the state Legislature should not be involved in county zoning.
"It's patently unfair to intervene in a county process that followed state law," Allen said. "They are debating issues that haven't even started yet."