Deschutes County Failing to Lead on Destination Resort Reform

Erik Kancler

A tremendous amount of attention has been paid to the topic of destination resort development in Oregon over the last few years. The issue came to a head with last year’s battle over the Metolius, but the broader matter of statewide policy reform is still unsettled.

The belief that resort development has gotten out of hand is near universal at this point. Even Rep. Gene Whisnant (R-Sunriver), a proponent of resorts recently admitted, “We may have made a mistake in Deschutes County with so many resorts.”

Destination resorts largely originated in Deschutes County with Sunriver and Black Butte Ranch. Large-scale public opposition to destination resorts also originated (again, largely) in Deschutes County with proposals to develop Pronghorn and Thornburgh. And over the last few years, Deschutes County’s Board of Commissioners has offered the strongest rhetoric on the need to reform its policies and approach to destination resorts as well as a firm belief that reform can and should be driven by local government.

However, in the first chance that Deschutes County has had to demonstrate such leadership – the board recently voted to amend its destination resort remapping procedures and related comprehensive planning policies – it not only failed to deliver meaningful reform but approved a set of policies that is even more developer-friendly than the current set.

The County’s stated goal has been to shrink the map and reduce capacity for new destination resorts. Although its newly adopted policies and procedures would end up shrinking the map, perhaps significantly, the overall effect will be to increase the countywide capacity for resort development.

Currently, 112,448 acres (pdf) are “mapped” for destination resorts. The vast majority of that acreage, (approximately 87% by the county’s own estimate) however, is ineligible for resort development for a variety of reasons.

Under the newly defined process, all of that land would be removed and the map would be reduced in size to as few as 14,000 acres. Taking close to 100,000 acres of irrelevant land out of the map may be the right thing to do, but it’s more of a housekeeping measure than a policy shift with real implications.

Complicating matters, the County Board approved a “grandfathering” clause which allows landowners that would otherwise be removed from the map to stay in via a simple petition. It’s hard to imagine very many landowners volunteering away their rights for nothing in return, and it’s likely the county will receive requests to leave many thousands of additional acres mapped.

Three elements of the County’s newly adopted ordinances actually work to expand the potential to develop resorts:

1) The new mapping ordinance clearly allows for the consolidation of multiple ownerships/parcels in order to amass the 160 or more contiguous acres that state law requires for developing a resort. While it’s arguable that this sort of land assembly could be legally pursued today under current rules, it’s also arguable that it can’t, as the county’s language is unclear. It’s possible that the lack of clarity and potential for legal challenge has deterred developers from pursuing projects in the past, and that new opportunities will be opened up as a result on land that’s already been mapped.

2) The County voted to reverse an existing policy preventing the mapping of federal lands, which could aid federal agencies in facilitating the disposal of public lands via “upzoning” them as eligible for destination resorts and increasing their market values.

3) The new policies allow for the addition of new land to the resort map. Sunriver has expressed an interest to add over 600 acres of new land to the map and others may wish to add hundreds, perhaps thousands of new acres as well.

Many expect that only Sunriver will add land to the map because only they have a viable project. However, property owners (specifically Jeld-Wen) are working to map over 90,000 acres of land in Klamath County for resorts and reportedly tens of thousands of acres in Lake County without any indication of viable proposals there - presumably because those entitlements will be valuable down the road. Similar thinking may lead many landowners with mapped land to remain in Deschutes County’s map, and others to apply for inclusion in the map, whether or not they have specific development plans in mind.

If Deschutes County – which has an excellent planning staff, a clear understanding of the issues, and an expressed commitment to addressing the problem – isn’t going to work to reign in destination resorts, then it strongly suggests that – absent an uprising such as took place two years ago in Crook County – such leadership shouldn’t be expected to occur at the local level.

For whatever reason, county governments are not paying attention to what citizens want on this issue. The problem isn’t that conservative elected officials aren’t paying attention to a small set of liberal constituents. It’s that local elected officials from both parties are largely ignoring complaints from a broad and politically diverse cross-section of their own communities.

Which is why destination resort policy reform will likely only be achieved if the state legislature takes matters into its own hands.

(Central Oregon LandWatch has filed a Notice of Intent to Appeal on Deschutes County’s ordinances, a summary of which can be viewed here.)

Central Oregon LandWatchErik Kancler is the executive director of Central Oregon LandWatch, a Bend-based nonprofit land use advocacy group.

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    ...thanks for this helps me understand the complex currents enveloping this struggle...

    ...please, keep up your good work!!!

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    There's a mindset that has developed in Oregon that the only way to bring jobs to our state is by mapping land on a massive scale for development. It's not just destination resorts. In other Oregon counties its an attempt lure large corporate and/or manufacturing facilities-or massive residential tracts.

    Unfortunately, many of the folks that have developed this mindset are positions that make the decisions on how land will be used in Oregon. Developers and real estate folks have done a tremendous job lobbying local governments (or getting elected to local government) in order to see these projects through.

    Combine this with a lack of a strong media presence at the local level, and the likelihood of a public uprising against these kinds of actions grows dim. Often, the public doesn't know or understand what's going on until it's too late.

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    "Combine this with a lack of a strong media presence at the local level, and the likelihood of a public uprising against these kinds of actions grows dim."

    So true, Carla. Given the attitudes you've mentioned and the difficulty regular folks have getting heard, it's hard to get these sorts of issues dealt with properly at the local level. This issue, as much as any I've seen, begs for a comprehensive set of state level policies to address concerns that won't get addressed at the local level. The current set of policies clearly isn't getting the job done.

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    "Combine this with a lack of a strong media presence at the local level, and the likelihood of a public uprising against these kinds of actions grows dim."

    I think that's extremely subjective. I worked as a journalist for 10-years, and everyone has his/her own idea of what should or shouldn't be covered, and at what level. People on both sides of this issue expect the media to either "call out" the developers or the environmentalists. It's easy to assume media coverage lacks when the stories you believe to be important aren't be covered at the level, or in a way you believe is in the best interest of the community, or the state as a whole. There is a philosophical debate about development in Oregon, and the media shouldn't get involved in determining who's "right" or "wrong".

    Having relationships with many economic development folks in this state, it's unfair to make assumptions about how large-scale developments are viewed.

    In Central Oregon, for example, the organization I work for: Economic Development for Central Oregon (EDCO), has a comprehensive strategic plan that includes a focus on everything from Renewable Energy to Entrepreneurship. One aspect of that plan includes having an adequate supply of large industrial lots for recruitment efforts. (Facebook wouldn't be in Prineville without an existing large lot).

    EDCO does not focus solely on corporations and large-scale development alone (in fact, a majority of our efforts are focused on companies with 25 or fewer employees), and I would argue that most of my colleagues around the state don't either. Economic diversification means supporting a wide variety of industries, both large and small.

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      "It's easy to assume media coverage lacks when the stories you believe to be important aren't be covered at the level"

      If the argument was about what reporters were covering, that'd be one thing.

      But the biggest problem with coverage these days is literally coverage -- there's no one left covering the stories. The decimation of local and statehouse news reporting is a crisis for our democracy.

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    You cite to Black Butte and Sunriver ... what destination resorts have been built in the last two decades?

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    As far as Goal 8 resorts go (as opposed to historic resort such as Sunriver and BBR which were approved under totally different sets of rules) Eagle Crest, Running Y, Brasada, Caldera Springs, Pronghorn, and Tetherow have been approved and built out to some degree that I'm aware of.

    Numerous other resorts have received approval, some of which have some facilities and golf courses constructed such as Remington Ranch, Hidden Canyon, Crossing Trails, Paradise Ranch, and Thornburgh. That's an incomplete list, but it should be nearly all of them.

    Why do you ask?

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    Lets vote to spit the State of Oregon into two separate but equal States so rural land use issues won't be bothering people in Portland so much.

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      Mark, I think you're missing the point: It's people in Central Oregon that are opposed to the Central Oregon resorts. Opposition is pretty overwhelming at this point. In Crook County (not exactly Portland) the citizens had a formal countywide referendum on the ballot to repeal the county's resort map that passed by essentially 2-1.

      My group, Central Oregon LandWatch, is based in Bend and our supporters are overwhelmingly based east of the mountains. The destination resort issue isn't a east vs. west issue. It's an issue of whether our elected leaders are going to pay attention to the interests and needs of local citizens, or a small handful of developers and their attorneys and political allies (many of whom are Portland-based.)

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      Mark: I live 20 minutes from Portland and less than 10 minutes from rural Washington County (the center of the best farmland in the state outside of French Glen). "Rural land use issues" are happening near Portland, too. It's a statewide issue.

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    It seems though all these things have their origins in Portland -Salem. You could be right, but I know how "grass roots" opposition works and often it is manufactured by those from another State or region with other interests outside the scope of what is being presented. They use locals to make it appear everyone in the local area is against it and perpetrate misinformation to get their way. Don't get me wrong, you could be standing on solid ground with your local movement, but it seems to me Blue Oregon (where you posted this article) is more about the Portland-Salem area than the rest of the State. The essence of the article is that local lawmakers cannot handle it, thus implying a Portland-Salem based final solution. Each person reads things differently based on their own perspective. We hold our own ideas and this works towards the translation of what we see, but to me this is screaming willy valley lobbyist control.

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      Well, I'm glad to detect some nuance in there, Mark!

      I can appreciate that land use issues have been driven for years largely by Portland-based interests. But I hope you don't let your expectations and historical perspective color how you feel about land use advocacy entirely.

      We directed the 2009 Metolius Campaign with our own lobbying and outreach efforts based out of Central Oregon and we've been leading the resort issue for years based out of Central Oregon and on the concerns of local interests.

      In the future, we'll be advocating on a broader array of issues of relevance to our part of the state and based on the interests of our part of the state and elsewhere in rural Oregon as well.

      You wrote, "Each person reads things differently based on their own perspective." I hope your perspective has room for the idea that not all land use advocates live in Portland or have a Portland-centric perspective.

      Also, I think perhaps one of the reasons I've been invited to write for BO is that they're interested in hearing a greater variety of perspectives from across the state knowing that their audience is broader than Portland-Salem.

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    There's a great candidate running for that very board of commissioners who can change that this year. He's an incredibly bright and hardworking leader named Dallas Brown, and I'd encourage anyone concerned about the very important choices needed in Central Oregon in the next few years to check out his campaign and maybe throw him a few bucks.

    I know that the working horse ranch on the river outside Tumalo we always vacationed at when I was a kid is now a gated subdivision.

    Dallas for Deschutes:

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