Former city employee says he's hoping Tigard will turn his land into an 8-acre park

TIGARD - Matt Harrell says he wants to do the right thing.

Harrell owns 8.3 acres of greenspace on Southwest North Dakota Street near Greenburg Road, which he says would make an excellent city park. He's not the only one - Harrell said he's been approached by the Trust For Public Lands, a land conservancy group, about turning the land into a park.

But Harrell said he can't wait much longer and is offering Tigard park planners an ultimatum if the city doesn't purchase his land by the end of the year.

'I have a tree-removal permit already approved, and I'm going to go out there and cut all my trees,' Harrell said of the 30 or so trees on his property.

Harrell said he saw the public relations hit the city took after Portland resident Fred Fields cut 2,300 trees along Southwest Hunziker Street last month to raise the value of his land.

'It's more or less a call to save the city from potentially getting another black eye,' Harrell said. 'People said in hindsight we probably should have bought (Fields' land).'

Fields has said he has few plans for that property, but removing the trees will make it easier to develop his land in the future.

Harrell has already flagged his trees for removal, and said he is serious about his plan.

'I have to look forward with my land,' Harrell said. 'I'll have to buzzsaw all my trees and the city will say 'We could have - should have - bought it.''

Parks bond could buy land

Harrell said he hopes that the city will use some of the $17 million bond that voters approved in November to purchase his land. So far the bond has secured new parkland behind Fowler Middle School and on Bull Mountain.

Harrell said it took a year for the Trust for Public Land officials to secure an option to purchase his property on the city's behalf, and are waiting for the city's approval to go ahead with the project.

Park planners and Trust for Public Land officials would not comment on whether the land was being considered as a possible park, but Steve Martin, Tigard parks and facilities manager, said that Harrell's property was one of more than 70 pieces of land submitted to the city as possible parkland.

Martin also said that he had not heard about Harrell's decision to clearcut the trees if the city doesn't purchase the land.

Black eyes

Harrell said he can't understand why the city hasn't jumped at the chance to buy his property.

'Why don't these guys just wake up and pull the trigger?' Harrell said. 'I just don't get it. Maybe they like getting black eyes.'

But there are some political reasons why the city might want to let the option expire on Harrell's property.

As reported in The Times in 2004, Harrell is a former Tigard city employee who purchased the property in 2003 for $35,000 while employed by the city as a senior engineering technician.

He and a fellow city employee planned to develop the land into condominiums, sparking neighbors and concerned citizens to fire off emails to city officials questioning the propriety of the sale and the potential development.

At the time, the city was considering purchasing the property for a new road.

Running along railroad tracks near North Dakota Street, Harrell's land stretches back to Southwest Nimbus Avenue and a road was considered to connect North Dakota Street to Scholls Ferry Road.

In 2003, then-city manager Bill Monahan ordered an internal investigation to ensure that no ethical obligations were violated in Harrell's role as a city inspector and that neither he nor the other employee had prior knowledge of the city's interest in the purchase of the property. None was found.

Harrell and the city were also named in a lawsuit filed last year after residents in Metzger believed that a water culvert on Harrell's property was causing flooding problems for residents along Ash Creek.

That lawsuit was later dropped, but Harrell said he believes the city might have some 'ill will' toward him.

'I don't know what their deal is, but at some point I have to keep developing,' he said.

Troy Mears, who heads the city's parks and recreation committee, said that the parks board did evaluate several properties and would speak to city councilors next month about which properties the city should persue.

Mears said that the board does not consider possible political implications when it recommends parks to the city council for approval. Instead, Mears said that the committee is looking for any land that could serve as a park.

'In our criteria, we didn't know if some of these properties are for sale or not,' Mears said, 'Once we recommend them to the city, then they can pursue them and see what the prices may be, and see if it's even realistic to buy the land.'

Harrell said he has been approached by developers for his land if the city doesn't purchase it, but said he would rather see the land become a city park.

'I grew up in the Tigard area,' he said. 'There's a part of my heart that wants to give back.'

According to Harrell, the Trust for Public Lands' option on the land expires at the end of the year. The city has until then to purchase the land, Harrell said.

'But I know how slow government works,' he said. 'It's slow as a slug in the sand.'

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