BEND — A proposed tourist lodge along the rim of Oregon’s Lake Billy Chinook has unnerved local farmers concerned about potential conflicts between agriculture and increased visitor traffic.
The potential development is at the earliest stages of consideration by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, which owns the property, and Jefferson County, which may enact an “urban renewal” zone to support the project.
Aside from worries about tourists criticizing common farming practices, some local growers are dismayed by the implications of 27,000 acres of rural property being designated as “blighted” for inclusion in an urban renewal district.
“We don’t believe our farmland is a blighted area,” said Gary Harris, who farms north of Madras.
As part of an upcoming “master plan” update for the Cove Palisades State Park, which is along the lake, OPRD has floated the concept of building the lodge on its property.
“No decisions have been made, this is an idea that’s part of a larger conversation about the cove,” said MG Devereux, the agency’s deputy director.
The “overnight facility” could operate similarly to the Silver Falls Lodge & Conference Center, the Wolf Creek Inn & Tavern and the Frenchglen Hotel, which are state-owned properties run by third parties under contract, he said.
Such a facility could also be an economic boon to county businesses that rely on tourists, though nonfarm economic development must be balanced with the concerns of the agriculture industry, said Jefferson County Commissioner Kelly Simmelink.
“I find it very hard not to take that opportunity,” he said.
Establishing an urban renewal district that includes the lodge facility would raise money for improving roads, expanding water lines, building horse trails and otherwise investing in infrastructure in that area, Simmelink said.
Under the “tax increment financing” associated with urban renewal, the amount of property tax money directed to existing districts — such as library and fire districts — is frozen within the zone, while revenue increases are devoted to investments within its boundaries.
“We then have a pot of money to pull from to make those improvements,” Simmelink said.
Critics of the proposal worry that an urban renewal district will constrain the amount of property tax revenue available for needed county services, but they also anticipate it will create a precedent for development within the 27,000-acre zone.
“It’s going to set up the desire and anticipation for people who have that scrubland to turn it into home sites,” said Harris, the farmer and vice president of the Jefferson County Farm Bureau.
The county also has a limited number of valuable irrigated acres that should be protected from nonfarm incursions, said Mickey Killingsworth, a farmer and secretary-treasurer of the Jefferson County Farm Bureau.
“Once you get this lodge, you’re going to have demand for more development around the lodge in the ag zone,” she said.
Of more immediate concern, it’s predictable that tourists would complain about farm practices they find annoying, which may result in new restrictions on those agricultural activities, Killingsworth said. During a recent air show over the summer, for example, field burning was suspended to avoid interfering with the entertainment.
“We move big equipment, we have dust, we do aerial spraying over here. There are a lot of conflicts, which is why we’re zoned the way we are,” she said. “They don’t want to listen to balers all night long. A lot of people are scared of herbicides and pesticides.”
For their part, the county government and OPRD acknowledge that local farmers have legitimate concerns about the proposal, which would be heard during public processes for the master plan and the urban renewal district.
“From my perspective, I get it. Those are conversations we’re going to have to have,” Simmelink said.
On the other hand, Simmelink said the owners of restaurants, gas stations and similar companies have largely expressed support for the proposal.
“We as a commission are going to turn over every rock to get every opinion. We want full transparency so we’re not making a bad decision,” he said.
Any proposed master plan for the park would have to be approved by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission as well as the county commission, then would be subject to land use appeals, said Devereux of OPRD.
“If there are issues that are not overcomeable, this is not something where a decision has been made or set in stone,” he said.