Rumors swirl that 2001 deal between gravel firm's owner and city might be in peril
by: L.E. Baskow, Ross Island actually is two islands that were joined artificially in 1927. The result is 175 acres of land nearly surrounding a 106-acre lagoon.

Recent uncertainty over an agreement to hand over most of Ross Island to the city of Portland should start being clarified today.

This morning, according to his public calendar, Mayor Tom Potter is scheduled to meet with the island's owner, Robert Pamplin Jr., at City Hall to discuss the status of Pamplin's earlier agreement to hand over parts of the Willamette River landmark to the city.

Pamplin and his attorney, Frank Cable, recently met with Potter's chief of staff, Nancy Hamilton, to discuss the future of the island. 'We had a meeting, we talked,' Cable said. 'We're going to have a meeting next week, we're going to talk some more and hopefully we're going to come up with something that's good for everybody.'

'Dr. Pamplin wanted to meet with the mayor,' said Potter spokesman John Doussard. 'We don't know what he's going to say, so we're going to find out.'

What's colloquially known as Ross Island actually is two islands that were joined artificially in 1927, creating a stretch of 175 acres of land that nearly surrounds a 106-acre lagoon. One of Pamplin's companies, Ross Island Sand and Gravel Co., mined Ross Island for 75 years.

But in January 2001, facing increasing pressure from environmental regulators, Pamplin - who also owns the Portland Tribune - agreed in a handshake deal with Mayor Vera Katz to hand over a portion of the land to the city.

At the time, Ross Island Sand and Gravel also renegotiated its restoration agreement with the state in a deal that, while appearing to save Pamplin money, also would create a more hospitable place for wildlife, including endangered chinook salmon that could use the lagoon as a pit stop.

The deal, however, has been delayed while a cleanup plan was finalized with the state Department of Environmental Quality. That deal was finished last month.

Since then, concern over the future of the agreement has been stoked by rumors at City Hall that the transaction with the city was dead.

The rumors in turn sparked a story in Willamette Week last week quoting an anonymous city official who said Pamplin was backing off from his earlier commitment by trying to hand over to the city all liability associated with the island - such as future obligations to clean up any contamination that has not yet been discovered - as well as by handing no money over to pay for future maintenance.

Asked about the earlier agreement, Kathleen Gardipee, an aide to city Commissioner Erik Sten who monitored the negotiations, told the Portland Tribune that the handshake deal did include a level of gray, but 'initially we understood that there would be some negotiation on liability, and some sort of fund going forward.'

Included in that, she said, was an understanding that both sides in the deal would engage in give-and-take in order to hammer out the details. If that is no longer the agreement, she said, then 'it seems something's changed.'

Her version was echoed by conservationist Mike Houck, another participant in the negotiations, in an interview with the Tribune. He agreed that the issue of how future legal concerns would be dealt with had not been settled in the earlier negotiations.

But Houck said he felt Pamplin did agree in concept to some unspecified level of endowment to help pay for future maintenance of the island, although it probably would be less than the $500,000 that Houck had suggested.

If Pamplin's desire is to transfer the land in phases to coordinate with the cleanup, Houck said, that would be understandable. But if there is any attempt to withdraw from the agreement to turn the land over to the city, Houck maintained that it would go to whether 'Dr. Pamplin is a man of his word.'

Cable declined to discuss his understanding of the earlier agreement, or to say anything else about the topic at hand except to say the current negotiations concerned 'the future of a portion of Ross Island.'

Len Bergstein, a lobbyist who formerly represented Pamplin in the negotiations but who is no longer employed by Pamplin, said his recollection was that the city had agreed in concept to a transfer of any future liability, since Pamplin already had agreed to take responsibility for all known contamination and necessary restoration measures in his reclamation agreement with the state.

Bergstein maintained that while the issue of an endowment was raised by Houck and the city, 'As with any negotiation, we never said flat-out no, and we never said flat-out yes.'

As for statements to the contrary, 'I'm flabbergasted - that really is a rewriting of history.'

Under the earlier agreement with the city, Pamplin reportedly would retain a gravel-washing plant as well as about 25 acres on the island. And newspaper accounts substantiate that the issue of liability is nothing new. In late 2005, an Oregonian story quoted James Rue of Ross Island Sand and Gravel as saying, 'Clearly, the owner wants a release of liability, and the (city) doesn't want to give that.'

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