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Metro caught in natural tangle

Regional agency has thousands of acres but few bucks for projects
by: Jaime Valdez Metro authorized a controlled burn in the Cooper Mountain Nature Park in September to kill invasive plants and encourage the return of native species. The property was bought and developed by Metro, which does not have enough money to do the same on all of the other natural lands it owns.

Metro owns a tree farm.

The regional government did not buy the farm to sell the trees. It is a large part of Chehalem Ridge, a 1,143-acre piece of property Metro bought in 2010 for $6.1 million to preserve as a natural area.

But there is little natural about the neat rows of identical-sized trees that cover much of the land in Washington County. Restoring it to natural condition will take millions of dollars, money that Metro currently does not have.

The benefits of preserving and enhancing natural areas can be seen at Cooper Mountain Nature Park, a 231-acre sanctuary in Beaverton. Metro purchased the property in 2009 for $6.6 million, then received authorization to spend about $3 million more to build a nature center building, gardens, parking, a children's playground, bike racks and 3.5 miles of gravel trails.

The park is visited by thousands of people a year and is maintained by the Tualatin Hills Park and Recreation District, which manages the park in partnership with Metro.

Both properties were bought with bond money approved by voters in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties. Voters authorized a $136 million bond sale in 1995 to protect natural areas and complete trails. A $227 million bond measure to continue the work was approved by voters in 2006. Metro has so far purchased around 11,000 acres of property throughout the region. Nearly $70 million was set aside for local governments.

But the measures did not include funds to maintain or develop the properties. Metro officials estimate it could cost up to $800,000 a year to maintain all of the properties it will eventually acquire. Preparing the 25 best candidates for public access could cost as much as $85.5 million.

Although Metro could place a funding measure on the ballot, some local officials worry about its timing. Portland Parks Commissioner Nick Fish and Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis were among those expressing concern at a Dec. 2 meeting about the timing and potential impact on local governments of such a measure. The meeting was called by Metro President Tom Hughes and Tigard Mayor Craig Dirksen to discuss the open space-natural area situation.

Among other things, Fish and Bemis worried that a new funding measure would inadvertently reduce revenue available to other governments because of a side effect of Oregon's complex property tax limitation system called 'compression.'

According to Dirksen, no decisions were made at the meeting, but the group agreed to continue the discussions next year.

A major landowner

About half of the second bond measure remains to be spent. The Metro Council could spend that money to maintain or develop the properties it has already purchased, according to Jim Desmond, director of Metro's Sustainability Center, which oversees the program. The council is not considering that, however, in large part because the measure was sold to the public as necessary to acquire environmentally sensitive and other lands for preservation.

'There's great value in buying such lands now, even if nothing else happens to them for years,' says Desmond.

Dirksen agrees.

'Some critics say Metro shouldn't buy land if they don't have the money to care for it, but preserving the right pieces from development is important and the voters support it,' says Dirksen, who is running for Metro District 3, which includes Tigard, Tualatin, Sherwood, Wilsonville, Durham, King City and parts of Beaverton.

Even the Metro Council wasn't sure how much and what kind of land the regional government had acquired until recently. At the request of the council, Metro staff presented the first comprehensive report on the holdings in late November. It includes detailed information on dozens of properties Metro owns throughout the region.

According to the report, 'Metro's Portfolio of Natural Areas, Parks and Trails: Opportunities and Challenges,' the regional government has become a major landowner and manager during the past 20 years. It controls 15,000 acres in the region, a number that may grow to 17,000 by the time proceeds of the second bond measure are spent.

A majority of the land - 72 percent - is in natural areas. Nature parks make up 24 percent, with recreational facilities and historic cemeteries accounting for the rest.

The lack of development and maintenance money raises serious questions for Metro and its regional partners, however.

'If natural areas are not actively managed and restored, they degrade significantly over time. Invasive plants can take over; erosion can damage water quality; threatened wildlife can disappear. Putting off key restoration work can make the same project more expensive - or even impossible - in the future. And, when public access grows, so do maintenance and restoration costs,' according to the report.

Metro is not the only government facing such challenges. So are some counties, cities and special districts in the region that also own natural areas. For example, the vast majority of the land owned by Portland Parks and Recreation is undeveloped. Of the 11,209 acres owned by the parks bureau, 7,593 acres are natural lands. Only 3,401 acres are developed parks.

Portland's largest natural area, Forest Park, accounts for 5,170 acres. Early this year, the City Club of Portland issued a report saying the park needs more Portland Parks and Recreation support.

Some other governments are in the same situation, in part because of the bond measures. According to the report, the local share of the money has helped increase the amount of non-Metro owned park and natural areas to about 20,000 acres.

Continue the conversation

Despite the problems, there's no doubt the Metro program is popular. The 1995 ballot measure was approved by 63 percent of voters in the three counties. The 2006 measure did nearly as well.

Perhaps even more impressive was the large number of well-connected people and organizations that endorsed the second measure. The Voter's Pamphlet had 19 pages of arguments in support of the measure signed by a broad range of elected, civic and business leaders. In addition to environmentalists, they included such prominent developers as CenterCal Properties President Fred Bruning and Portland homebuilder Don Morissette.

Such broad support suggests voters would approve a new measure to maintain and develop the properties, even if it is opposed by some local officials in the region. But, according to Dirksen, balancing the needs of all governments within Metro's jurisdiction is important, too.

'I didn't even know compression was an issue until the (Dec. 2) meeting,' Dirksen says. 'When some governments are already looking at laying off police and firefighters, it makes sense to continue the conversation.'