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Nearing 30th year, Residents Committee turns its entire focus toward Measure 37

By JANET COOK

News staff writers

December 20, 2006

One of the oldest land-use advocacy organizations in the state got its start in 1977 as a disparate group of disgruntled Hood River Valley citizens with a common goal: fighting a proposed upper valley development by Mt. Hood Meadows.

“The group’s first people had a strong sense that the valley was a very special place for agriculture and they needed to do what they could to preserve land for farming,” said Jeff Hunter, a real estate agent who joined what became known as the Hood River Valley Residents Committee in 1981. “It was a group of people who didn’t always agree with each other over a whole lot of other issues, but they agreed on this.”

The HRVRC successfully thwarted that initial Meadows development proposal. But the ski area company soon came back with more, and the continued perceived threats to upper valley farming helped solidify the HRVRC into a cohesive and determined group.

Thirty years later, the HRVRC is more than alive and well — it has become a powerful land use watchdog group. It boasts a membership of more than 200 and has a leadership structure with 11 dedicated board members from many different backgrounds and professions.

This fall, the group hired its first executive director, Jonathan Graca. And it has sought to put a fresh face on its mission of protecting Hood River County’s farm and forest lands and maintaining what it calls the “livability” of the county’s cities and rural communities.

“In the past, a lot of what HRVRC has done has been reactive,” Graca said. “We’re trying to have a more proactive stance — to work more with educating the public.”

The organization has a reputation for monitoring a spectrum of planning issues facing Hood River and the valley, ranging from the city’s sign ordinance to involvement in the waterfront plan.

The Residents Committee’s most ambitious effort over the years, however, has been its continuing opposition to Mt. Hood Meadows’ plans to develop its holdings on the mountain’s north side near Cooper Spur. In 2005 the HRVRC and Mt. Hood Meadows, after a year of mediation, agreed on a historic resolution to the 30-year dispute: Meadows would give up all development plans on the mountain’s north face in exchange for a pledge from the HRVRC (and a dozen other conservation groups) not to fight the company’s proposal to build nearly 500 housing units on property near Government Camp.

The land exchange became part of the Mt. Hood Legacy Act, a bill which was passed unanimously by the U.S. House of Representatives in July. It then ran into roadblocks in the Senate after a retired Forest Service official raised questions about the property appraisals involved in the exchange. Passage of the bill is now unlikely, and the HRVRC is prepared to go to the mat again.

But much of the Residents Committee’s past work pales in comparison to what it faces now: Measure 37.

“This just changes the scope of the problems and challenges facing the valley,” Hunter said. “I think our mission is to bring the reality of the effects of this measure to the public and to help facilitate a dialogue with the citizens of this valley to find a solution that incorporates fairness but does not cost us our agricultural heritage.”

As part of its new proactive stance, the HRVRC plans to hold educational forums about issues related to Measure 37. It also plans to partner with other organizations in order to “have a bigger voice and include more citizens,” Hunter said.

The group’s ideal goal would be for Measure 37 to “become a more fair and just measure,” according to Hunter — probably through a new referendum. Hunter and the HRVRC believe there are legitimate Measure 37 claims, such as that of the measure’s “poster child” Dorothy English, whose 30-year attempt to slice off a few homesites from her 20-acre Multnomah County property became the rally cry for Measure 37 proponents.

But the law’s logistics — Measure 37 claimants must have owned their property prior to Oregon’s landmark land-use laws coming into effect in the mid-1970s — inherently create unfairness.

“This law says that, for a whole class of people, there is no land use planning,” Hunter said.

Longtime HRVRC member Ron Cohen, a Hood River accountant, agreed. “What about the neighbors having rights? What are your property rights as a citizen?”

That plus a whole host of other concerns — including basic infrastructure issues, like water and sewer capabilities if major subdivisions pop up around the valley, as well as the ability of schools, roads and other basic public services to absorb such growth — has turned the focus of the HRVRC almost solely to Measure 37.

For years, the group has closely monitored development applications filed with the city and county. Although no development proposals have yet been filed for Measure 37 claims, it’s a matter of time. And the HRVRC will have its hands full when the time comes: More than 10,000 acres of land in the Hood River Valley are now under Measure 37 claims — roughly 7,000 acres of it current farmland.

The HRVRC isn’t waiting for the filing of actual development proposals. Last month, the group filed appeals at the state level regarding three Measure 37 claims. The group is asking, among other things, that the state more accurately value the land involved in claims — making valuations more commensurate with mid-1970s values, then using “some reasonable economic index to bring it up to date,” explained Scott Franke, a lawyer and the president of the HRVRC.

The group plans to file more such appeals when it finds them appropriate.

Graca stressed that the HRVRC is not anti-growth. “It’s how do you have smart growth,” he said.

Hunter believes the best way to do that is to educate residents and to bring all sides to the debate — to, as he says, “raise consciousness levels.”

“It’s probably going to take some of these claims becoming reality to make people realize what Measure 37 is going to do to this valley,” he said.

“We’re not owning a solution to this,” Hunter added. “We have to have this broad discussion first.”

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