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Horse Trading for Golf Courses 

Is local development threatening land use plans?

Tom McCall is a hero.

In 1967, when a single developer in Cannon Beach threatened the state's longstanding law that the "public owns the beaches," the then-governor cowboyed up two helicopters and flew to the disputed tract of land.

His bravado stirred public sentiment—and set in place the Oregon Beach Bill, which declares all beaches in the state free from private ownership and inoculated from the sort of commercial development that has spoiled coastlines from New Jersey to California.

But that concept of development—protecting the region's natural beauty from economic development—has been approached much differently in Central Oregon.

While certainly some of the developments have been tasteful and, like Sunriver and Black Butte, even consolidated sprawl into one dense center, the results also have been uneven and shortsighted, still sitting incomplete like a ghost from a 21st century boomtown. Especially when such commercial development is piecemeal—like creating exceptions or opportunities for one developer—the result can erode the general character of a region.

Last week, as the housing market and economy in Central Oregon continue their recovery, those forces and sentiments—to create exceptions to land use restrictions for the sake of short-term economic gains for certain developers—once again flexed their presence.

It is a storyline as old as the Old West—and now as recent as last Wednesday, May 29, when state Rep. John Huffman introduced House Bill 3536.

The bill's simple language seems innocuous enough; the goal is to create alternatives to small-scale recreational communities. But, claim land use attorneys, the bill is actually a shell game, swamping out zoning codes for personal gains and, in the process, creating an approach to land use in Central Oregon that elevates one family's financial gains at the cost of a comprehensive planning strategy.

Reportedly, the beneficiaries of the bill—the Cyrus family, which owns and operates Aspen Lakes Golf Course—sent a lobbyist to Salem to persuade lawmakers from across the state to help create their exception, and open the door for developing and expanding their resort by more than 1,000 acres and as many as 480 additional residential units, as well as another 100 motorcoach spaces.

The points laid out for the so-called Metolius Development Credit Transfer by that lobbyist sound totally fine: A letter obtained by the Source explains that the legislation promises to protect more than half of the land as "open space" and transfer a quarter-mile along Wychus Creek to an environmental nonprofit. It actually states the bill "eliminates the possibility of resort development in the Metolius basin."

In fact, the bill actually transfers existing development opportunities onto property allegedly owned by the Cyrus family.

What makes the bill primarily suspicious is that it was introduced by a representative from District 59, an area near Wasco, 100 miles north of the proposed site—and also unnerving because it signals an attempt by developers to leapfrog over regional zoning and land use laws by creating special laws favoring their own business plans.

"It is the kind of special interest legislation that breeds public distrust and cynicism," explained Paul Dewey, executive director of Central Oregon Landwatch, in a letter addressed to state representatives. "Deschutes County has well-established processes for handling destination resort applications and the Cyrus family should follow them as everyone else in Deschutes County has to do," the letter continues.

Immediately at stake are tracts of land east of Sisters; in the larger context at risk is the process for commercial development to move their plans forward.

Four years ago, legislation created what are known as "transfer of development opportunities"—or TDOs. Those allowances created a sort of modern-day horse-swapping, but for tracts of land; these allowances were very limited—they were less than 320 acres and for developing sites with the primary purpose of overnight (not residential) lodging (i.e., camping or low-impact hotels). And, not to scoff at: Developers had to pay $1.5 million in public land restoration for use of a TDO.

The proposed HB 3536 opens up an opportunity for parties like the Cyrus family to shake free of those restrictions. By creating a so-called "heritage house" exception to TDOs, the family would be able to drop in nearly 500 homes.

While it's certainly not a crime to develop, the use of the state Legislature for private gain and, moreover, the seeming backroom dealings certainly undermine Oregon's land use protections and open up the region to vulnerabilities by which developers' individual plans are permitted at the expense of a comprehensive land use program.

"This would never happen in the Valley or the coast," asserts Dewey.


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