Potential financial commitment cited as deciding factor

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - A five-year effort to acquire the last segment of the 20-acre White Oak Savanna natural area, led by volunteer Roberta Schwarz, was halted Monday in a 3-2 city council vote.A five-year effort to preserve and protect a 5.65-acre swath of land at the White Oak Savanna natural area took a dramatic turn Monday night as the city council voted 3-2 against a resolution to acquire the land and turn it into a park.

Though 14 acres of the White Oak Savanna have been city-owned and protected since 2009, the 5.65 acres in question remain unprotected. The goal, according to West Linn resident and volunteer Roberta Schwarz, was to raise the total of $1.72 million needed to purchase those last acres and begin the preservation project shortly thereafter.

Last May, that effort took a significant step forward when the Portland Metro Council approved a $500,000 community grant to be put toward buying the last unprotected segment of the 20-acre property, which is located just north of Interstate 205.

Schwarz originally proposed that the city allocate $250,000 for the purchase, a sum that would potentially be matched with a grant from Oregon State Parks. However, at a March 17 meeting city staff countered with a potential resolution to support the land acquisition without providing funding, and Schwarz accepted the proposal.

Monday’s meeting was scheduled for the specific purpose of deliberating that proposal after staff had more time to review the project — specifically focusing on how the city might be involved moving forward.

In the end, Mayor John Kovash and City Councilors Thomas Frank and Jody Carson expressed discomfort in committing to a project with unknown future costs. Though the resolution took pains to avoid any sort of immediate financial commitments from the city, a staff report noted that converting the land into a park would likely cost the city about $2.1 million further down the line due to required street improvements and zoning changes.

“I’m uncomfortable being asked to support a resolution saying that you can deal somewhere down the road with millions of dollars,” Kovash said. “It seems to me that we should know where those funds are coming from before we support it.”

The staff report noted that the true “no cost” option for the city would be to find a third party land conservancy group to acquire and manage the land.

Though the council expressed favor with that option, Parks and Recreation Director Ken Worcester said his staff had yet to explore exactly how it might happen.

“We have a couple properties owned by land conservancies,” Worcester said. “But we haven’t explored it at all. We’re not sure if anyone would be interested.”

City Councilor Mike Jones, who voted in favor of the resolution, said the city was already responsible for street improvements and zoning changes at the 14-acre space it purchased in 2009, and that the $2.1 million was “a hypothetical that may or may not occur.”

“We’re looking at the worst case scenario,” Jones said. “All we’re asking for is a resolution to continue with the grant. There may never be $2 million in street improvements triggered for that.”

In the end, the council was unable to look away from that worst case scenario, and Frank was also critical of the “lack of transparency” during the proposal process.

“A few councilors were courted off to the side, and this was brought up during community comments (at the March 17 meeting) with no staff report,” Frank said. “We haven’t had a public hearing or public comments coming in through public process, which has been an issue with me.”

The Oregon State Parks grant application, which would have been filled out by the city, was due April 4.

Schwarz and a large contingent of White Oaks Savanna supporters — including three representatives from the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde — did not hide their feelings when the final vote came in.

“We’ve worked on this for five years, and you’ve effectively killed it,” Schwarz said. “I’m so ashamed.”

Carson said she hoped that this decision would not mark the end of the group’s efforts.

“I feel very strongly that I would love to have a park there,” Carson said. “But I’m also not comfortable with committing us to this level of commitment without going through the process. I like the option to find someone to conserve the property, but I’m not sure we have that at this moment.”

Schwarz said the group is “deeply disappointed” and will assess its options going forward.

By Patrick Malee
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