Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A Long Day for Destination Resorts

Posted By on Wed, Oct 15, 2008 at 11:26 PM

It was a long day for destination resorts Wednesday.

People who picked up their morning paper might have read today over a cup of coffee that Tetherow resort, which is located just outside Bend's city limits on Century Drive, had scrapped plans for its "luxury" hotel because of financing problems. According to the story, the resort's developers are being sued by the architects who worked on the design for the building to the tune of 700 grand. Lot sales, too, appear to have stagnated at Tetherow along with most of the other destination resorts. Just six lots have sold since June at Tetherow with hundreds still available.

If this storyline sounds familiar, that's because it is. Pronghorn, the exclusive resort north of the Bend airport off the Powell Butte highway, has yet to build its promised hotel - some five years after the resort started selling lots and developing its TWO golf courses. So far the resort has received four extensions from the county, the latest stretching to 2013. How's that for holding their feet to the fire.

While most folks were digesting the news that Tetherow is taking on water, Crook County commissioners were busy rescinding their entire destination resort map, essentially putting a moratorium on any new resorts. According to a report earlier today in the Oregonian, commissioners said they were compelled to take the action after a large majority of county voters endorsed a referendum directing the county to withdraw the map. The overlay maps are required by state law in any county that seeks to attract destination resorts, and at this point it's not clear what direction Crook County will go.

It had already been a long day for resort developers and their backers (as well as their army of attorneys) and it wasn't even lunch. By mid-afternoon, developers were under the microscope again in Prineville when the Department of Land Conservation and Development and several state legislators held a field hearing to discuss the impact of resorts on Oregon, particularly Central Oregon. The department kicked off the hearing by telling attendees many of whom were already aware, that the it was going to introduce legislation that would give the agency greater power to regulate the industry, which currently is governed by state law and local codes that have been designed to implement those laws.

Commissioners and state legislators got an earful, though, from many opponents of the resorts, including a strong contingent of Powell Butte residents who said their rural way of life was being undermined by the proliferation of resorts in their community. Others, including former state legislator Charlie Ringo, had strong words for the industry, which Ringo described as masquerading as something it is not.

"Pronghorn, Remington Ranch, Brasada. These things are not destination resorts - they're rural subdivisions. It's a sham to call them destination resorts," Ringo said.

He described dropping by Pronghorn after a day in the outdoors with his son to see if they could get something to eat. He didn't have to finish the story, though, before the room broke out in spontaneous laughter at the notion of walking into Pronghorn.

Ringo of course was turned away at the resort's locked gate.

It's an example, he said, of how so-called resorts have become exclusive subdivisions for millionaires. And while they may be profitable for some, including the county tax collectors, they are certainly not what Oregonians had in mind when they created the destination resort laws 25 years ago.

He suggested that the state impose an immediate moratorium while it studies the issue. Others seconded his opinion. Meanwhile those in the industry, defended the economic impact of resorts and called for caution. They assured the commission that the market had already put the brakes on development and welcomed a renewed look at the destination resorts - provided that they have a seat at the table.

I didn't stay for the conclusion of the hearing, but state officials did outline their plan for the coming year, starting with drafting and introducing legislation to give them a greater role in oversight of the industry and the framework of state planning laws that guide it. At that point, the commission would like form a working group to consult with the department of land conservation and development and begin an in depth study of the resort industry in Oregon and its impacts. DLCD staff made clear that they weren't sure what the outcome would be. In some cases though, they said, it could result in a strengthening of rules to protect things like wildlife, farmland and natural resources, and in other cases it could result in a loosening of rules to provide local government more flexibility and control. The only question now: Is it too little, too late?

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