Meeting by telephone Thursday, the commission told the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department staff to direct its acquisition efforts elsewhere.
“From the very beginning, my interest was that we have an excited partner working with us, similar to what we experienced in Cottonwood Canyon, with Sherman and Gilliam counties,” said Jay Graves, commission chair. “I’m very disappointed to have gotten this far and not have that.”
He and other commission members found insurmountable obstacles in the apparent division in the local community and the breakdown in talks toward an intergovernmental agreement.
Commissioners thanked ranch owners George and Priscilla Meredith for their efforts, which included working with the OPRD staff and also pledging a large donation to offset the price of their land.
Chris Havel, parks department spokesman, said the commission was grateful for “the dedication and philanthropy of the current owner.”
He said the agency recognized that “while there are many Grant County people strongly in favor of the project, it takes a consistently high level of support from many quarters to create a new state park.”
The proposed acquisition met vocal opposition from ranching organizations and some Grant County officials who were concerned about the continuing loss of private land to public ownership. The county in December formed a citizen task force to negotiate toward a possible agreement on a range of issues – taxes, water rights, the state’s investment in the park – at the urging of the governor.
The parks commission’s vote to end the acquisition came just one week after talks on the intergovernmental agreement stalled.
Grant County Court members confirmed they received calls from OPRD staff on Feb. 14, indicating the state agency was ending the negotiations.
OPRD stewardship manager Jim Morgan told the commission last week that the agency felt it was near agreement on all issues save one: the potential loss of tax revenue if the land became a state park. Others also felt the county’s demand for in-lieu taxes was the main sticking point.
Commissioner Brad Chalfant said that raised the question as to whether the county had been negotiating in good faith and whether the agency would be able to get land-use approval if it went ahead with the deal.
Another said there didn’t appear to be middle ground on the tax issue.
“I’m very disappointed in that,” said Cal Mukumoto, commission vice chair.
County Judge Scott Myers said he also was disappointed but not surprised that the deal faltered.
In the last round of negotiations, the Court was seeking a payment in line with what the county would receive in property taxes under ownership without special breaks, such as those granted for timber or farm deferrals.
Myers said the county’s last proposal was for the state to pay $50,000 a year, close to the $54,000 the county estimated would come in from taxes without any special assessments. In an email to the agency Feb. 13, he outlined this proposal: $50,000 a year for as long as OPRD owned the property, but with reductions available if and when the agency fulfilled the grazing, production and timber management activities that ordinarily would qualify for tax breaks.
Commission members said it didn’t appear the parties could find middle ground on that issue.
Chalfant said he still felt Grouse Mountain would be “a spectacular addition to the state park system,” but he was deeply disappointed in the response from Grant County.
“From what I can see, it’s not necessarily representative of what the public of Grant County is looking for,” he added. “But we have to have a full partner in the county if we are going to successfully develop the park.”
County Commission Chris Labhart, contacted this week, said only that the parks commission had made its final decision, and the county accepts that.
“Now we’re ready to move on,” he said.
Grant County Farm Bureau president Jeff Thomas, in an email to members, declared the agency’s decision to pull back a victory, and said the battle to protect the county’s tax base would continue.
Grouse Mountain Ranch owner George Meredith said he was “bitterly disappointed” by the outcome and the opposition that scuttled the deal. He said the county was making demands that were “way over the top” in regard to anything the state has ever agreed to before.
“This has been a very attractive economic opportunity for the people of Grant County,” he said. “The County Court has blown it.”
The parks agency had planned to finance the deal with up to $2.5 million proceeds from a separate transaction on the coast involving golf course developer Bandon Biota.
The Bandon proposal remains on the state parks commission agenda for April 9. Meantime, the commission told the OPRD staff to begin looking at other properties on its “watch list” that might work with the Bandon deal in place of Grouse Mountain.