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Metro Council seeks extension of park levy

Portland area voters will be asked Nov. 8 to extend a tax levy to carry on the work called for in a regional parks and nature system plan.

“It buys a lot of protection, restoration and education for a relatively small amount of money,” Metro Council President Tom Hughes said Thursday (June 30) as the council voted unanimously to put it on the general election ballot.PHOTO COURTESY METRO - With the help of a $125,000 Metro Nature in Neighborhoods grant, the North Clackamas Parks & Recreation District rerouted a trail out of a wetland, installed a boardwalk and an overlook, restored native plants and added large, woody debris to enhance fish habitat.

The measure would extend the current tax — 9.6 cents per $1,000 of assessed (taxable) value — for five years beyond its current expiration in 2018. The tax amounts to about $20 annually for a home with a taxable value of $200,000.

From 2018 to 2023, the extended tax would raise a total of $80.7 million for restoration of some of the 17,000 acres that Metro has acquired in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties over the past two decades, and for park improvements, operations and maintenance. Proceeds will not be spent on land acquisitions.

The action was not a surprise.

Hughes called for a renewal of the levy on Feb. 4, when the council approved a regional parks and nature system plan two years in the making. It is intended to fill a niche between state parks and federal lands on the one hand, and urban parks owned by cities, counties and special districts on the other.

Metro has spent more than $400 million in the past two decades from two bond issues in 1995 and 2006 and a levy approved in 2013. The regional system now extends from the Chehalem Ridge natural area near Forest Grove to the Sandy River Gorge, and from Blue Lake Park south to Graham Oaks near Wilsonville.

Some of the money generated by the levy goes to community grants for regional trails and conservation education under the Nature in Neighborhoods program.

The council met at Willamette View, a retirement community just outside Milwaukie, and later offered tours of nearby Spring Park, which benefited from work funded by a $125,000 Metro grant to the North Clackamas Park & Recreation District.

Grants approval

In a related action, the council approved a total of $200,000 for eight community grants for conservation education. The money will support education, training and work efforts aimed at youth, particularly those from low-income and minority families who have had little experience with nature.

“For a lot of our partners, this is a first for them,” Councilor Carlotta Collette said.

“This is Oregon. We should not have any children who have not been in the woods before or who do not have a relationship with and understand nature. If there is any place on this planet where everybody ought to have a relationship with nature, it is this place. For 10 cents on $1,000, this is money really well spent.”

When such grants were begun about a decade ago, Mike Houck, executive director of the Urban Greenspaces Institute, said there was widespread skepticism then among the council and others on their value. He said he is happy about how things have turned out.

Houck, who has been involved in regional conservation efforts over more than three decades, did say Portland and other growing cities must still find more stable sources of money.

“We are looking forward … to truly address protection of the landscape across the region,” Houck said.

Although he didn’t say it at the meeting, Houck has said it would take almost two centuries at the current funding rate to complete a network of regional trails envisioned in Metro’s plan.

Mike Wetter is executive director of The Intertwine Alliance, a coalition of more than 150 groups that seek to integrate nature into regional activities.

“You have an army standing behind you,” he said. “We have your back.”

Dissenting witness

Although Houck and Wetter were among eight speakers who testified for renewal of the levy, there was one dissenter.

“I do not think you have demonstrated the need for this money to do all these things we have been doing out of current funds,” said John Charles, president of the Cascade Policy Institute, a free-market think tank based in Portland.

Charles said Metro’s own auditor has raised questions about spending on Nature in Neighborhood community grants, and that far more money generated by the levy is spent on restoration and management of natural areas rather than on public access to regional parks.

“It has an elitist tint to it,” he said. “It’s great for nature, but not very good for middle-class folks or taxpayers who are paying and will pay for this.”

But money from the levy has gone into upgrades at Blue Lake and Oxbow regional parks, and new docks at Chinook Landing Marine Park on the Columbia River.

Newly adopted plans for Newell Creek Canyon in Oregon City and the North Tualatin Mountains, northwest of Portland’s Forest Park, call for limited development of parking lots and trails.

Metro Councilor Bob Stacey said the North Tualatin Mountains plan, which the council approved April 21, calls for opening only about 25 percent of its 1,400 acres to trails for walking, cycling and horseback riding – and putting most of the rest off-limits.

Among the groups supporting the council action were the Momentum Alliance, Northwest Trail Alliance, Tualatin Riverkeeper, Verde and White Oak Savanna Project.

Also speaking for it was Gerald Deloney, co-chairman of the Coalition of Communities of Color and an official with Self Enhancement Inc. of Portland, which serves at-risk youth.

Deloney said he was less concerned about specific park and nature projects than about developing job opportunities for youths — particularly those of color — who have no prospects for college.

“If we do not do something about this, they are going to do something about it,” he said. “We do not want to see that.”

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