By RAELYNN RICARTE
News staff writer
September 30, 2006
A land swap that could protect the north face of Mount Hood from development ran into a major roadblock this week.
The Hood River Valley Residents Committee and Mt. Hood Meadows Oregon LP are hoping their mediated settlement is not derailed. The two parties spent more than one year hammering out details for a trade of public and private property to end a long-running dispute.
Two federal bills to expand Wilderness areas on Mount Hood ask Congress to approve the land exchange.
But this week the U.S. Government Accountability Office announced that appraisals for the properties may have underestimated the value of 120 acres of national forest near Government Camp. Meadows — with support from HRVRC — is seeking to trade 769 acres near the Cooper Spur ski area for the public land. The company wants to erect condominiums in an area that is already heavily developed and has been zoned for that purpose by Clackamas County.
If the trade is granted by Congress, the HRVRC has gained agreement from Meadows to turn its Cooper Spur holdings over to the public. The company is also willing to forever give up any development rights to the south of Mount Hood Country Store or between the east and west borders of Hood River County from that point. In addition, Meadows foregoes the right to file a Measure 37 claim on 60 acres it owns along Highway 35 near the Crystal Springs watershed.
“The reality is that HRVRC cut a sweetheart deal for the public at our expense,” said Dave Riley, general manager for Meadows. “We’ve agreed to it as a compromise and it protects other public values that don’t necessarily translate into dollars and cents. But it all goes down the tube if this agreement does not go through.”
Both HRVRC and Meadows stand behind the appraisals of the two properties that assigned more value to the Cooper Spur property. Meadows paid for the evaluation by Steven Hall, an appraiser from Montana who is on the U.S. Forest Service’s approved list. He was selected only after HRVRC concurred that he would render an objective review of the land valuations.
According to Hall’s reports, Meadows is actually paying more at $31,750 per acre than two smaller pieces of land zoned for the same purpose at Government Camp. He estimated the value of the 120 acres at $3.8 million and the Cooper Spur ski area and adjoining resort facilities at $5.5 million.
However, Mike Ash, former deputy regional forester for Oregon and Washington, challenged the validity of the appraisals. He contended the Government Camp parcels would bring more than $15 million on the open market. He believed that restricting the land exchange to one private party did not serve the public as well as a competitive process would.
The GAO, which was asked to look into the matter, found fault with the values, which assigned a 10 percent annual land appreciation rate for the public land that was already zoned properly and closer to Portland. Hall granted Cooper Spur an 18 percent appreciation rate even though much of the land needed to be rezoned for development — the subject of the dispute with HRVRC.
“We’re not sure the extent to which they are accurate and should be used to support a land exchange,” wrote Robin M. Nazzaro of the GAO in a letter to U.S. Reps. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., who authored the Mount Hood Stewardship Legacy Act.
The two officials and their Senate counterparts, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., who drafted the Lewis and Clark Mount Hood Wilderness Act, were cautious in their reaction to the GAO ruling. They have simply pledged to resolve the identified issues if possible.
However, Walden joined Riley and Scott Franke, HRVRC president, in the belief that the issue was more complex than just two appraisals.
He said the trade would save taxpayers millions of dollars in costs to provide infrastructure for development of the more environmentally sensitive Cooper Spur Area. And, if it was not approved, the bitter battle between Meadows, which wants to expand its business interests, and HRVRC, a watchdog group to preserve resource lands, would be revived.
On Thursday, Riley made a statement that supported Walden’s concern after hearing of the GAO report.
“If anyone thinks it’s a red herring that Meadows isn’t going to turn around and put millions of dollars into Cooper Spur they are sadly mistaken. And we’re pretty good at building ski resorts in spite of opposition,” he said.