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Ananda Center gives Laurelwood land new life

Property has housed several spiritual centers during its history


The recent purchase of 175 acres of farmland southeast of Gaston has raised questions about the intersection of faith, education and property taxes. But that’s nothing new in the complicated history of the property, which has served spiritual educational institutions since 1904.

The land is located in the small community of Laurelwood and was bought — this time — by the Ananda Center at Laurelwood. Ananda is a global, nondenominational movement that highlights yoga, meditation and the teachings of an Indian yogi named Paramhansa Yogananda. Its 55-acre Laurelwood center, site of Ananda College, sits adjacent to the newly purchased farmland.

Some local residents were hoping the farmland would be developed into a subdivision of high-end homes that could generate tax revenue for Gaston’s school district and rural fire protection district.

That would have broken the pattern set over the past 110 years.

For most of that time, the campus hosted the Seventh-day Adventist Laurelwood Academy and junior college, which combined spiritual education with an emphasis on physical well-being and vocational training. Students planted crops on the adjacent 175 acres to create a sustainable community that supported their vegetarian diet.

Nearly all that land once belonged to John H. Walker, who traveled the Oregon Trail in 1845 with Joseph Meek and Alvin T. Smith. Walker’s 640-acre donation land claim included most of the current Laurelwood Valley. His grandson, Raleigh, inherited the land, but unlike his rugged forebears, Raleigh Walker did not see agriculture as his destiny and instead attended Pacific University, where he developed a passion for educational and spiritual pursuits.

In 1904, Raleigh Walker donated a chunk of the land to a group of Seventh-day Adventists hoping to create a residential school, seminary and college. The Adventists built Laurelwood Academy and bought about half of Raleigh Walker’s land over the years.

In the 1980s, the academy ran into financial trouble when boarding schools became less popular and enrollment declined. Adventist school officials consolidated their Oregon boarding schools at a campus near Roseburg. They also considered selling the Laurelwood campus to the Scientology-based Delphian Schools, which operate a boarding school at a former Jesuit seminary near Sheridan. Public opposition delayed the sale.

While the Adventists sought offers from other spiritual or educational organizations, they leased out the farmland and let Harris Pine Mills, Inc. rent an old furniture factory north of the campus. When Harris Pine Mills declared bankruptcy in 1987, the Adventist church was its largest creditor and stood to claim most of the company’s assets. Instead, church officials cited moral and religious principles and surrendered those assets to others.

After this spiritually based but economically costly decision, officials sold the Laurelwood property to an independent group of Adventists, including local building contractor Malcolm Moreno and Marvin McDougal, a developer and timber baron. They reopened an Adventist boarding school, but without formal support from the church.

This new group also entertained offers for the 175 acres of farmland. In 1992, McDougal proposed a large subdivision, sparking legal battles, a torrent of community opposition and formation of the Laurelwood Preservation Coalition. The proposal died after a year, partly because the county declared much of the land floodplain or unsuitable for septic systems — or too unstable for homes and roads.

With residential development unlikely, the owners tried to sell the entire acreage, including the main campus, and moved the Academy to a 20-acre site (provided by McDougal) near Eugene.

The state considered using the campus for a minimum security prison or a police training academy, but the Adventists ended up renting some of the buildings in the mid-2000s to Mission College, a spiritual educational institute which promotes sustainable agriculture. The college couldn’t afford to buy the campus, however, so in 2011, the Anandans purchased it for a spiritual educational facility with a focus on sustainable lifestyles.

They also started raising money to buy the remaining 175 acres and came through with $2.25 million to buy the parcel in November.

Eric Glazzard, leader of the Ananda Laurelwood facility, said the group hopes to develop the acreage into a clustered community of homes and sustainable agriculture. That would allow it to be rezoned as residential, bringing more tax revenue to local school and fire districts, while leaving part of it undeveloped to avoid flood issues.

Meanwhile, the controversial acreage remains as it has for the past 110 years: farmland that supports spiritual education.

Full disclosure: Ken and Kris Bilderback have owned about an acre of the original John Walker Donation Land Claim since 2004 and were members of a community advisory board for the Ananda community in 2012 and 2013. Ken Bilderback also volunteered as public information officer for the Gaston Rural Fire District from 2008 to 2013.

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