CANYON CITY - The factions are lining up as the controversial Bandon Biota-Grouse Mountain Ranch land exchange and purchase goes to the Oregon State Parks Commission this Wednesday.
The commission, meeting in Corvallis, is scheduled to decide whether to move ahead with appraisals of the properties involved, which span the state.
Gov. John Kitzhaber's office stepped into the fray last week, reaching out to the Grant County Court with ways to resolve some local concerns about the proposed purchase of 6,100 acres of the Grouse Mountain Ranch for a state park.
"We want this to be something that's not an economic negative, but a positive for the county," Kitzhaber adviser Brett Brownscombe told the Court by telephone at its Nov. 13 meeting.
Brownscombe unveiled a draft letter from the governor to the parks commission that stressed the values and benefits of state parks, but also the importance of working with local governments to realize those benefits. It set out a framework for the parks agency to resolve an array of issues that have sparked opposition in Grant County.
Members of the Court urged Brownscombe to use the governor's clout to delay the park decision. They wanted more time to consider the suggestions in the draft and get more details in writing.
However, an Oregon Parks and Recreation Department spokesman said postponement would be unlikely, given the number of interested parties with travel plans to attend the meeting.
The Grouse Mountain property, north of Mt. Vernon, is one element in a large land exchange keyed on coastal property sought by Bandon Biota for an upscale golf course development.
The deals has sparked protests from county officials, the Grant County Farm Bureau and the Grant County Stockgrowers. Local objections hinge on the erosion of property on the tax rolls in a county already dominated by public lands, as well as loss of acreage in agricultural production and the future of water rights on the ranch north of Mt. Vernon.
The governor's letter called for the state to commit to payments that would offset any loss of property tax dollars, and to continued payment of state wildfire patrol assessments. It endorses agricultural activities such as hay production and maintenance of water rights, supports hunting as a tool to manage wildlife, and pledges an interagency effort to develop a plan to return some public lands to private ownership in the county.
"If these bullet points had come forward six months ago, there might be a totally different sentiment in the community," said County Judge Scott Myers.
"Even three months ago," added Commissioner Boyd Britton.
However, Britton wanted to see some points, such as a pledge to keep water rights from going instream, detailed in writing before the state moves forward.
Commissioner Chris Labhart disagreed on the need for delay. He has supported the rights of ranch owner George Meredith to sell his land, and said he's been threatened physically for his stand.
Meredith noted that the proposed deal has been public since June. The ensuing five months could have been put to more productive use, he said, than the confrontational attitudes arguments that marked the discussions.
He said there is local support for the park proposal, but "a vocal minority" in the community is not interested in solutions, only in stopping the deal.
Meredith also said the situation has been blown out of proportion. "We are talking about land that represents one-quarter of 1 percent of the grazing land in Grant County," he said, calling that too small "to even touch the dials" of the economy.
Shaun Robertson, a consultant who has said he'll appeal the acquisition if it is approved, said county residents have a long history of broken promises from the state and federal governments.
On the proposal to shift public lands to the private market to compensate for the lands lost, he questioned the state's ability to come up with surplus property that's equal in value, not just acreage.
Robertson said if that's the intent, the state should first identify the property to sell, follow the administrative rules for surplus lands, and make sure all of it - including the Meredith property - goes into escrow to close at the same time.
Meanwhile, the coastal land swap has sparked concerns among groups concerned about land use, water rights and farming.
The land-use group 1000 Friends of Oregon says the exchange doesn't meet the required legal standard of a resounding, clear and obvious public benefit.
"If you must agonize over the decision or there is even serious debate, it's not 'obvious' and it does not pass the legal test," 1000 Friends staff attorney Steve McCoy wrote to the parks commission. "The 'overwhelming public benefit' is simply not there."
On the other side, the Oregon Hunters Association has thrown its support behind the park deal, saying it sees that overwhelming benefit. The association favors the proposal to use hunting as a management tool, and opposes any move to shift land from the Schneider Wildlife Area into private ownership, as has been discussed in local meetings.
"OHA is adamantly opposed to selling any part of any state wildlife area," the organization said.