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Metro: Time to invest more in natural areas?

Poll could influence decision on property tax levy

Metro is taking a closer look at whether to ask voters to approve a bond measure to maintain, rehabilitate and open up more of the natural land it has purchased.

Starting this week, 600 Portland-area likely voters will be asked to share their opinions about the region's natural areas, parks and trails in a telephone survey.

It will be conducted on Metro's behalf by the Davis, Hibbitts and Midghall polling firm. The cost of such surveys is usually around $20,000.

According to Metro, the survey will gauge support for restoring, maintaining and increasing access to more of the 16,000 acres of open space and parks that it owns or manages. Among other things, voters will be asked their opinions on leaving the property in its current condition, restoring it to further benefit habitat and wildlife, or improving it for public use.

During the next several months, the Metro Council will review the results as it considers what to do with the property, including asking voters to invest more money in it.

Although no specific measure has yet been drafted, the survey will ask voters their feelings on a property levy of 10 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. That would generate approximately $10 million a year.

Metro has purchased and helped local governments purchase around 12,000 undeveloped during the past 17 years. That property is in addition to Metro's previous holdings, which include a number of parks formerly owned by Multnomah County. Money for the purchases came from two levies approved by Metro voters. A $136 million bond sale to protect natural areas and complete trails was approved in 1995. A $227 million bond measure to continue the work was approved by voters in 2006. Nearly $70 million of the total was set aside for local governments.

But the measures did not include funds to maintain or develop the properties. Although Metro has opened three new large-scale nature parks - Mount Talbert in Clackamas, Cooper Mountain near Beaverton and Graham Oaks in Wilsonville - dozens of other sites lack parking, trails, signage and restrooms.

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.

When Metro President Tom Hughes discussed the idea with several locally elected officials a few months ago, there was some opposition to the idea. Portland Parks Commissioner Nick Fish and Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis were among those expressing concern about the timing and potential impact on local governments of such a measure at the Dec. 2 meeting called by Hughes and Tigard Mayor Craig Dirksen.

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

No decision has yet been made on when - or even whether - to asked voters to approve such a measure. The Metro Council has only recently begun grappling with the question of what to do with the land it has bought and helped acquire. Metro staff presented the first comprehensive report on the holdings to the council just last November. It included detailed information on dozens of properties Metro owns throughout the region.

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

According to the report, the vast majority of the land - 72 percent - are natural areas. Nature parks make up 24 percent, with recreational facilities and historic cemeteries accounting for the rest.