Young Life's Washington Family Ranch, located in northern Jefferson and southern Wasco County, is looking to add 1,500 beds to its youth camp.
>Young Life Washington Family Ranch
Rather than spend time at the county government level, Young Life hired a lobbyist and went straight to the Oregon Legislature to seek a land-use fix. House Bill 3098 would allow the nonprofit to be exempt "from statewide land-use planning goals and provisions of acknowledged comprehensive plans and land-use regulations of Jefferson County and Wasco County."
Because of the county's long history with land-use appeals, Jefferson County commissioners are content to let the Legislature decide whether or not the youth camp will be able to bypass state goals and county regulations. The decision would affect about 4,000 acres of rangeland -- most of which is located in Jefferson County, on property formerly owned by followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in the 1980s.
Wayne Fording, chairman of the Jefferson County Commission, said that the commission was contacted by Young Life's lobbyist, Linda Swearingen, who informed commissioners about the nonprofit's plans.
"Their lobbyist gave us a heads up," said Fording. "There's nothing we can do at this end; that's how land use is in this state."
"I'm OK with them expanding the camp as long as it sticks within the realms of what they're proposing -- four camps, 100 acres apiece," he continued. "If this goes through, they'll still have to go through the planning department and the appeal process if need be; it just gives them the opportunity to move forward."
Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, who sponsored the bill with Reps. Jason Conger (R-Bend), Sal Esquivel (R-Medford), and Gene Whisnant (R-Sunriver), and Sens. Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day), and Bill Hansell (R-Athena), said he was approached several months ago by Young Life representatives about owner Dennis Washington's desire to add another camp to their complex.
Huffman met with Richard Whitman, the governor's natural resources director and former director of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, about the project. Whitman told him that "basically, we would need to do a carve out as the state to allow Young Life to make application with Jefferson and Wasco counties for the proposed development."
Huffman and lobbyist Linda Swearingen, of Redmond, both said that House Bill 3098 does not take control away from the county. "Right now, what they're attempting to do (at the Legislature) is have all the hearings," she said.
"They still have to go through the county," said Swearingen. "It creates a process so Young Life can go into Jefferson County or Wasco County and they can make a land-use application." The county would have to approve the site plan, but the camp would be considered an outright permitted use.
The bill was introduced and had a first reading Feb. 22, and was referred to the House Land Use Committee for a hearing March 19.
Even without the expansion, County Commissioner Mike Ahern is concerned that the nonprofit organization doesn't pay an adequate amount for the services it already receives from the county.
Addressing county concerns, Christopher Marshall, Canyon Camp manager, said Young Life pays about $8,800 annually in property taxes in Wasco and Jefferson counties.
But, according to property assessment reports, only about 26 percent of that total was paid in Jefferson County, even though about 70 percent of the property is in the county; most of the improvements are in Wasco County.
For 2012, Young Life paid a total tax of $2,314.81 for about 43,144 acres of property in Jefferson County -- all farm-use zoned rangeland. Because Young Life is a nonprofit and pays tax on the land, but not improvements, their tax bill is about the same as for a $150,000 single-family home on one acre.
Aside from paying property taxes, Swearingen pointed out that the Young Life Washington Family Ranch has a significant economic impact on the county. "Actually, they do more business in Jefferson County than in Wasco County," she said, noting that it's closer to Madras than The Dalles.
In a letter to Huffman, Marshall, who has lived and worked on the ranch for about 15 years, said the ranch employs 47 full-time staff members, and seven part time throughout the year. The full-time number swells by 30 in the busy summer season.
There are also 12 full-time volunteers, 268 high school work crew members, and 260 college-age staff members, and over 1,000 weekend volunteers during the summer months, he wrote.
With a total annual budget exceeding $6.3 million, Marshall stressed, "We depend heavily on local vendors to supply us with the goods and services needed."
The camp manager also said that about $34 million was invested in the Washington Family Ranch from 2009-2011 to expand the facility.
"They built a middle school camp," Swearingen said, adding that the improvements are all in Wasco County. "It's a big camp -- very nice and new."
Because of the sheer number of people who live there full time (about 150) and visit each year (about 20,000), Ahern expects that there will eventually be problems that will be costly to the county.
"Over a period of time, bad things will happen," said Ahern, citing a search and rescue that occurred there last year. "That's a county job."
"To me it's about public safety and roads," he said. "My goal is to have them pay the transient occupancy tax," said Ahern. The transient occupancy tax, often called the hotel/motel tax, is paid by all county hotels, motels, recreational vehicle parks, bed and breakfasts, campgrounds, and houseboats.
Citing what he called the "hypocrisy of the state," Ahern said he doesn't think the county has a role in the process. "You either have local land-use planning or you don't, and in Oregon, you don't."
"We're a shining example; we went through the proper channels to map resorts and then the State Legislature usurped our authority," he said, recalling the state's designation of 447 square miles of the Metolius River Basin as an Area of Critical State Concern in 2009.
The designation occurred after the county had spent more than two years in legal battles, and eliminated the only area the county had mapped for destination resorts back in December 2006.
"I'm not going to spend any county time on this," said Ahern. "I would be in favor of it if we find a way for them to pay for their public expenses."
Huffman hopes to address the county's concerns.
"During this process, I discovered that both counties felt that they had been paying out much more than Young Life has been paying back through taxes," said Huffman.
"Linda and I have worked with Young Life and the counties to get the communication started," he said. "It looks like there will be a series of memorandums of understanding between Young Life and various county departments to cover the county's costs of service delivery."