Resorts attempt to get around land use law by making payoffs

Carla Axtman

I'd really like to know how anyone thought this could possibly pass the smell test:

John Griffith, (Sisters, OR):

The Cyrus family has added a new twist to their efforts to build a destination resort near Sisters.

House Bill HB3372, submitted to the Oregon legislature by Representative Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, would allow a proposed 1,500-acre "Cyrus Heritage Farm" development that would be exempt from local county land use planning control.

In exchange, the developers would be required to provide payment to a variety of local groups for each building permit. The developer would also be required to dedicate conservation areas and agricultural lands.

HB3372 would allow "Cyrus Heritage Farm" (CHF) to build 495 dwellings, up to 100 RV resort spaces, and a wide variety of recreational facilities. In exchange, for each building permit issued, CHF would pay $1,000 in systems development charges (SDCs) to the City of Sisters (up to $495,000), $2,500 to the Sisters Schools Foundation for capital improvements (up to $1,237,500), and $2,500 to the Department of Fish and Wildlife or an environmental educational non-profit such as Wolftree (up to $1,237,500).

In addition HB3372 would increase the open space requirement from 50 percent to 60 percent, create permanent protection for 250 acres of agricultural lands, and create permanent protection for 129 acres along a half-mile stretch of Whychus Creek.

In a nutshell, this legislation says that if you're willing to pay a bunch of people off, you can go completely outside Oregon's land use laws. Apparently being able to come up with a crap-ton of scratch for payoffs has its benefits.

Not that this isn't bad enough on it's face, but the Cyrus family isn't exactly having smashing success with their current resort-style businesses. The Cyrus company that owns the land under their golf course and restaurant recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Not only is this an attempt to give special dispensation to a family willing to make payoffs to get around land use law, we'd be doing it for a family that has a business that's gone into bankruptcy. Fantastic.

Oddly, even the bill's sponsor apparently has his doubts about it.

Editorial, The Source Weekly (Bend, OR):

Apparently Whisnant is having a tough time justifying the Cyrus Family Protection Bill himself. Although he’s agreed to put his name on it, he reportedly says he’s not sure if he’ll actively work for it. That’s a remarkably lame position. If the bill’s not worth pushing, Gene, why introduce it in the first place?

The Deschutes County Commission’s tweaking of the law to benefit the Cyruses was indefensible, and Whisnant’s bill, if anything, is much worse in terms of both the damage it might do and the terrible precedent it would set. We hope Whisnant will re-think the issue and decide not to introduce it.

It would seem that Rep. Whisnant managed to buck up, because HB 3372 was introduced and referred to the House Agricultural and Natural Resources Committee. No word yet on whether a hearing has been set. A quick glance at the upcoming committee schedule doesn't show it.

I'm not sure how much it costs Oregon taxpayers to have a piece of legislation drafted, submitted, heard and voted on, but Whisnant and the Cyruses should be ponying it up to the state. This ridiculous special favoring is unacceptable at any time, but even more so when Oregon's budget is already a mess. What a waste.

The insult to Oregonians who actually follow the law is even greater. Destination resorts in Central Oregon are proving to be a shaky business model for the area and the market is saturated.

The very similar HB 3347 would give a similar end-run around Oregon land use law for Pine Forest Development (Caldera Springs/Sunriver developers). Sources tell me that this bill was developed by lobbyist Linda Swearingen, who used to also represent the Cyruses.

The idea that we'd allow more of this to go on outside the law for some payoffs is appalling. In its entire context, it's downright disgusting.

  • (Show?)

    Brasada Ranch is the exception. Jeld Wen has sold the resort to another company and they are focusing on more of the overnight lodging units and cabins, and not single-family homes. They are also adding more "resort-style" amenities, similar to what Sunriver has; and they are working to amend their Master Plan.

    Brasada Ranch is also the highest taxpayer in Crook County by a long shot. According to the Crook County Assessor's office, Brasada Ranch paid $480,359.68 in taxes in 2010. Les Schwab, which was second, paid $273,977.02.

    While I won't comment on the Cyrus case because I don't know enough about it, some destination resorts provide a huge financial benefit, especially to rural communities. In a county of 25,000 residents, I can't imagine what budget and service cuts would look like in Crook County if Brasada Ranch didn't exist.

    While I don't believe we should throw all destination resorts under the bus, I do agree that they have become over saturated in Central Oregon. And I agree that they need to focus more on the "resort" aspect of development, and not create island subdivisions.

    These resorts also play an important aspect in economic development, because many business owners and investors visit Central Oregon via these resorts. Black Butte Ranch and Sunriver Resort have played an important role in attracting new visitors over the decades, which has further spurred business growth in our region.

    • (Show?)

      I strongly agree that destination resorts have their place in the economy for Central Oregon, Jason. I appreciate you making that clear.

      That said, even Crook County residents are adamant that no more resorts are built there. They voted overwhelmingly in 2008 to approve an initiative calling for an end to destination resort development in their county

      Certainly, attempting to get around Oregon land use law by offering to make payoffs seems smarmy at best.

      • (Show?)

        Yes, you are correct. I, too, believe it's over-saturated.

        The economic impact is really in the tax revenue, not the jobs. I think the resorts have done themselves a disservice to imply job creation, when most of the jobs aren't well paying.

        I believe these resorts have their place, but I'm in total agreement with your assessment on the land use issue.

    • (Show?)

      There's also what I (sitting here in Portland) would call the "food cart problem," in which for each new resort that gets built you need to bring the customers for it.

      Since, as mentioned above, these resorts are not "resorts" in the common sense but rather vacation home developments, today's housing market should provide an indicator that building more and more and more will simply hurt the existing players like Sunriver and Black Butte.

      But what do I know? They tore down my family's favorite spot (Deschutes River Ranch) years ago to build vacation homes for Californians. I guess a working horse ranch in the Wild West doesn't fit the golf-and-shop lifestyle.

      Thanks for your continued attention to this, Carla.

  • (Show?)

    Don’t forget HB3347. Rep. Whisnant and co-sponsors Conger, Huffman, McClane & Atkinson introduced a bill so arrogant that one wonders if Hosni Murbarak didn’t vet the final copy! Look at the broad aspects of this bill:

    • Conceived in secrecy, I don’t believe this bill was intended for review until it hit the House floor for its first reading. Instead, someone leaked a copy about 10 days before.
    • The result, people on the entire spectrum of political views are outraged at the arrogant provisions.
    • Mandates a sanitary authority, without voter referendum, including selecting the board members.
    • A sanitary authority can tax, issue bonds, force compliance and even foreclose on property.
    • Deschutes County paid over $60,000 to Sunriver Environmental, LLC (the owner of the sewer for the Sunriver Resort ) to do a study about hooking up existing homes outside the Resort (hookup fees about $18,000).
    • DEQ requires that Sunriver Environmental, LLC fix and upgrade their sewer.
    • That’s a little like walking into a repair shop and demanding that the owner pay you for the privilege of fixing your car, what arrogance!
    • Virtually eliminates all Oregon land use law, County planning and zoning. It also appears to exempt Pine Forest Development from wildlife considerations and transportation issues.
    • Now that’s arrogant! It looks like the developers of Pine Forest Development(appears to be Lowe Enterprises) decided that what they want is more important than the people of Oregon.
    • Gives money to the County to remove restrictive covenants on destination resort Caldera Springs(next door). Requires additional fees from Pine Forest Development (925 new homes) to help South County landowners hook to the sewer. Estimates of the total amount this bill would require the developers to give are about $3 million for these privileges. HB3347 doesn’t mandate payment of the $3 million upon passage. The bulk of that money might not come in for years, so where does that leave the homeowner assessed the $18,000 hook up fee?
    • First, $3 million is a drop in the bucket to set up a sanitary authority. Second, the money wouldn’t be there for years to help those who needed it most. Third, $3 million is a small price to pay for the huge returns the developers expect to get. Again, arrogance at work!
    • Rep. Whisnant stated in his Whisnant Weekly (February 11, 2011) that they sought input from South County residents about the provisions of HB3347; that was not true. After the local uproar over the sanitary authority provision, Whisnant stated in a press release dated February 18, 2011, that he was amending the bill to “send” the $3 million directly to DEQ and the sanitary authority could be formed later.
    • First, where the amendment, it’s been almost a month - Second, arrogance shows through. Shouldn’t it be up to the citizens to decide?
    • I almost feel sorry for Whisnant’s co-sponsors; did they even read the bill?
  • (Show?)

    All signs point to this being bill conceived by a Whisnant constituent. Many legislators have a policy of "sponsoring" any piece of legislation their constituents want drafted. That doesn't mean they will actively support it.

    And because we still are still clinging to the last vestiges of our "citizen legislature," I think that policy is actually a good one. It should not be a barrier to participation in the legislative process that one's representative won't allow a bill to be drafted.

    From here, it appears Whisnant has adopted the same posture as every legislator who has ever dropped a bill on behalf of a constituent - he's leaving it up to them to do the heavy lifting. If they can get enough support for the bill, then it may move forward.

    So, attack the policy, but don't attack the procedure. We should encourage legislators to sponsor bills on behalf of their constituents without fear of reprisal, should the policy embodied in that bill turns out to be a bad idea. That's participatory democracy at its finest.

connect with blueoregon