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With litigation ending, its time to talk about Millard Road

As we barrel toward the two-year anniversary of voters’ decision to dissolve the Columbia Health District, there is a need to appreciate the calm in which we now find ourselves.

This is essentially our first peaceful period, as the maelstrom that surrounds the former hospital project is concerned, in the nearly two years since the 2011 dissolution of the hospital district, a time oft-characterized by neighbor versus neighbor in a tug of war over the district’s former assets. All lawsuits in Columbia County Circuit Court, barring appeal, have been laid to rest, and a federal lawsuit alleging racketeering was voluntary dismissed by the plaintiffs.

Most contentious since the dissolution has been the fate of the 8.3-acre property on Millard Road that had been procured by the health district by way of a messy three-way land swap that involved the St. Helens School District, the city of St. Helens and health district.

In fact, our experience is there are few people who believe the land swap was a good deal for all involved, and we remain critics of it and the commingling of motivations that resulted in the loss of St. Helens city park property on Ross Road. And while the swap did benefit the school district and provided it with property on which to build a new school, it ultimately compromised the city’s land portfolio in a manner that resembled one tax district placing its assets on the line for the benefit of another, wholly separate tax district.

That’s not the way it’s supposed to work.

There are several opportunities today, however, for the communities that made up the CHD to get back on track and to leave the problems of the past where they belong — in the past.

First, we would like to see an end to the litigation that has bogged down the Columbia Health District’s trustees — a legitimate, lawful panel composed of the Columbia County Board of Commissioners — from completing their assignment and dispersing of the CHD assets. We agree, in part, with the group that had challenged the legitimacy of the dissolution plan the CHD board had crafted as it realized voters were becoming increasingly hostile toward the hospital project. The plan was silent on the question of the Millard Road property, a fact this newspaper had reported prior to the dissolution fully going into effect.

Because it was not specifically mentioned in the plan, Oregon law specifies the property reverts to the jurisdiction where it exists. In this case that is the city of St. Helens, whose voters approved annexation of the property in 2010. There were opportunities, despite steadfast critics, for an incoming board in 2011 to address the dissolution plan, but that did not occur. As Columbia Circuit Judge Ted Grove found in his Dec. 28 summary judgment, the commissioners have been legally appointed to act as trustees and, at its core, there is no legitimate legal argument to the contrary.

While it’s not difficult to imagine the oversight in the dissolution plan may have been intentional as a way of providing recompense for the city of St. Helens for having participated in the three-way land swap, having the property revert to the city of St. Helens is not necessarily a bad thing for the former Columbia Health District residents.

Admittedly, the health district extended beyond St. Helens’ borders and property owners in Scappoose, Columbia City, Warren and Deer Island contributed taxes that helped the health district purchase the Millard Road property.

For the sake of community fairness, we believe those taxpayers should be represented in the re-purposing of the Millard Road property, and would like to see a broad community discussion about how that land should be used and how it could best benefit the entirety of South Columbia County.

In that vein, we are encouraged by Columbia County Commissioner Tony Hyde’s words that discussions with city officials will be occurring to that end. Now, we believe the city should begin the process of having realistic discussions about the Millard Road property and how it could serve as an asset for all of the residents of the defunct health district.