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Coalition pays $15.25 million, nearly seven times price of 23-acre property five years ago

New tribal owners of the Willamette Falls property in Oregon City announced this month they're developing a win-win situation in revising a plan to provide public access to the falls.2016 PMG FILE PHOTO: RAYMOND RENDLEMAN - Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission leaders tour the former Blue Heron Paper Co. mill, a site of longtime cultural importance at Willamette Falls in Oregon City.

In routing the public walkway along the river rather than along Main Street, which would have been through the center of the former Blue Heron Paper Co. mill, tribal leaders hope to put a lid on the project's ballooning costs and provide more opportunities for visitors to view the river on the way to the falls.

In August, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde became the new property owners of the nearly 23-acre site they consider to be sacred ground, as the only remaining site in the state where the tribe can continue its tradition of harvesting lamprey eels for food.

Metro, on behalf of the Willamette Falls Legacy Project, still holds an easement through the property to build the walkway.

"By exploring the riverside approach, we're evaluating better access to the public," said Grand Ronde spokesperson Sara Thompson. "This approach opens up the opportunity for a more personal experience with the falls, offers more scenic views, and gives us the opportunity to provide safe access during times of remediation or construction."

Another project delay is an obvious downside in going back to the drawing board. Construction originally scheduled to break ground in 2018 was initially pushed back to 2020 due to a former property owner's refusal to pay taxes and sign permit applications.

Now that plans are being revised, project leaders are hopeful for a 2021 groundbreaking.

As previously reported, government officials are optimistic that through the tribal purchase they have overcome past issues obtaining permit-application signatures from former property owner George Heidgerken.

Project partners include Oregon City, Clackamas County and the state of Oregon.

Cost estimates for constructing the initial phase of the walkway — as it was envisioned last year — exceeded the $12.5 million originally budgeted for the project by as much as $20 million, but Metro referred a bond measure to voters to help plug the gap in that budget shortfall.

In November, voters across the region approved Metro's $475 million natural areas bond measure, in part to provide opportunities for people to enjoy nature close to home, with $20 million to be directed to the Willamette Falls riverwalk.

Working out the details

New budget numbers won't be available until Grand Ronde finishes initial design and cost estimates for a route along the river. But tribal officials expressed optimism that a river route for the walkway will be cheaper than the route through the middle of the former paper mill.

"Over the course of the project, our hope is that the approach would result in some cost savings," Thompson said.

It's unclear how riverwalk plan revisions would impact buildings that are potentially eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

U.S. Army Corps officials said the project will have to get a permit through Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act to evaluate how the project minimizes its effects on historic properties, but that legislation does not require historic properties be preserved.

"We are sure that the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde team will take all the constraints and challenges that this site has very seriously," said Carrie Belding, a spokesperson for the public partners.

"We look forward to working with them in the coming days to see how they interpret the challenges of the site and goals for the riverwalk."

Belding said Metro asked the tribe to evaluate the cost and feasibility for the new approach for the walkway along the river after Grand Ronde requested changes.

"We're waiting to learn more from them before we resubmit our permit application," she said.

After finally getting the former property owner to sign on, public partners on the walkway project to the falls in May 2018 submitted a permit application to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to proceed with construction.

The joint permit application to the Corps kicked off the permitting process, but federal officials sent the application back to Metro saying it was still "incomplete."

Metro officials said their Corps application was intentionally left incomplete so the tribes can continue to provide sensitive cultural information.

A federal permitting process was triggered for the public project, in part, because of the potential for archaeological work at the site that has been sacred to Native tribes for millennia.

To reclaim a key piece of the large swath of land they ceded to the federal government in 1855, Grand Ronde leaders had to pay $15.25 million, nearly seven times what Heidgerken paid for the property five years ago.

In early 2018, Heidgerken rejected a more than $5 million offer from public partners planning to build a walking path to Willamette Falls; he paid $2.2 million in bankruptcy court for the property in 2014.

As part of the purchase, the tribe has signed documents with state officials that establish a scope of work outlining known contaminants at the site and limiting the tribe's liability in cleaning up those contaminants.

Also on Aug. 15, the tribe filed an agreement with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality that recognizes the two parties' mutual desire to protect the environment "through applicable provisions" that regulate toxic cleanups.

Tribal officials have applied for $975,000 in grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other partner agencies to assist in further assessments and cleanup.

Tribal leaders face a mixed-use zoning code on the site that the city approved in 2014 that regulates any future building construction, calling for "a vibrant mix of shops, restaurants, offices and housing" in a network of streets friendly to walking and biking.

The tribe repeatedly has said it has no interest in an Oregon City casino.

Zoning of the district gives the tribe flexibility to build hotels, apartments, museums, markets, offices and light industrial buildings.

Whatever the details of mixed use there might look like, the tribe wants new and revitalized historic buildings at Willamette Falls to reconnect Oregonians with the area.

Grand Ronde leaders are expected to present their findings on a potential new walkway route at the next meeting of project partners, to be scheduled in February or March.

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