The proposal would protect about 60 acres along the Willamette
by: jim CLARK, Approximate boundary of the parcels of land on Ross Island Robert B. Pamplin Jr. has offered to the City of Portland.

After years of talks, Mayor Tom Potter and Robert B. Pamplin Jr. this week struck a tentative deal to transfer a significant portion of Ross Island to city ownership in two phases.

The transfer would protect about 60 acres of natural habitat along the Willamette River.

Pamplin, who owns Ross Island Sand and Gravel Co., as well as Community Newspapers Inc. and the Portland Tribune, said he will initially donate a roughly 45-acre parcel facing west that is home to bald eagles and contains a blue heron rookery.

A second, 15-acre strip of land adjoining the first runs around the lagoon and would be donated after environmental reclamation work is completed. Pamplin's company would also donate $100,000 for ivy removal.

In August, Potter asked for Pamplin to donate the entire island in phases, said his spokesman, John Doussard.

But Pamplin's 2004 offer had been described as a 'take it or leave it' offer, Doussard said. At that time, the city could not financially or legally take on the unknown environmental liabilities in the lagoon.

Plus, the reclamation requirements required by the state were beyond what the city could absorb.

Potter said of the current offer: "I believe this offer is as important to Portland, and the future of its riverfront, as the reclamation of Tom McCall Park. The generosity of Dr. Pamplin and his family will long be remembered by Portlanders."

The 60 acres of land to be donated will be pristine, free of any contaminants. 'This land has never had any environmental concerns, and I view it as 'only being touched by the feet of animals,'' Pamplin wrote in his Sept. 27 letter to Potter. The city would have responsibility for all liability and maintenance costs. Pamplin used a bicycle analogy: 'If I give you a bicycle and it gets a flat tire the next week, it is your responsibility to fix it.'

The area called 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. Ross Island Sand and Gravel Co. mined Ross Island for 75 years. In January 2001, Pamplin agreed in a handshake deal with then-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, had been delayed while a cleanup plan was finalized with the state Department of Environmental Quality. That deal was finished in June. 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.

Potter said Wednesday that he is grateful for Pamplin's offer, and part of the agreement now is not to ask for more land than the 60 acres under negotiation. 'If we have an agreement, we're not allowed to ask for more,' Potter said. Ultimately, though, 'we're very interested in looking at the entire site,' he told reporters.

Bob Sallinger, urban conservation director of the Audubon Society of Portland, lauded Potter's move as a proactive step toward conservation of the area. He said he's delighted that the city will soon add the 60 acres to Forest Park, Smith and Bybee Lake, Mt. Tabor, Powell Butte, and other natural areas enjoyed by the public.

Sallinger said the Audubon Society and other stakeholder groups have been meeting with residents and developers of the South Waterfront district across the river, who are interested in developing its future use. He said he's gotten the sense that the new population of 5,000 new residents are interested in seeing the site managed in a sustainable way.

'This is a very significant piece of that island, and ecologically, it's the most significant portion,' he said. 'I really give Mayor Potter credit for bringing it home.'

The plan is to add the property to the city's park system. The city would limit access for about a year until a comprehensive plan is in place. Then the city could develop some limited trails or education areas, similar to Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge.

Potter and Pamplin had met twice over the summer to discuss the Ross Island transfer, and Pamplin made his offer to the mayor in a letter late last month. Potter sent a written response to Pamplin late Tuesday, stating that he would like to begin negotiations.

The mayor has asked the city attorney to draft a Memorandum of Understanding within the next two weeks.

The city would not formalize any agreement until an independent environmental assessment of the property is complete. The City Council must also approve the final agreement.

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