The Hood River Valley Parks and Recreation district asserts that it is within its right to build a park on high-value farmland in Hood River County and is now taking that fight to the next level.
In August, the County Commission overruled the County Planning Commission’s approved ruling and decided not to allow a park on land zoned exclusive farm use off Barrett Drive.
Now Parks and Recreation is appealing that decision to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals.
Parks and Recreation, through attorney Michael Robinson, delivered an intent to appeal the county’s decision to LUBA on Sept. 20 along with a $400 appeal fee.
Fritz and Joann von Lubken, who appealed the original planning commission decision to the county commission, filed a motion to intervene with LUBA on the side of the county commission through attorney William Kabeiseman.
Parks and Recreation director Lori Stirn said that the district was attempting to put together a meeting with the commission and the von Lubkens to seek mediation on resolving the issue but that the von Lubkens had declined the offer. Stirn has yet to hear back from the county regarding the possibility.
County Commission Chair Ron Rivers said he was surprised the commission’s decision was being challenged.
“We’re kind of surprised they would go this far with it; when a board of commissioners in any county make a land use decision nobody normally appeals them, because our job is substantially to protect our resource land,” he said.
Fritz von Lubken said that he had met with Stirn and that he had offered to buy the property from the parks district so that it would not sit empty, but that his offer had so far been declined.
“We told them we would buy it so that they are not out tax dollars,” he said.
In an appearance before the county commission last month, Stirn said the Parks and Recreation district intended to land bank the property as well as complete a link-up with the Indian Creek Trail, which it has the right to do.
Stirn said that that Parks and Recreation may be open to selling the land through a land swap if property which allowed for the construction of sports fields became available, but that opportunity has not yet presented itself.
In the meantime she said that she hoped Parks and Recreation would get a chance to sit down with the county to “talk to them and have them change their minds a little bit on what is allowed out there.”
The zoning of the Barrett Park property currently only allows for “passive recreation” and not sports fields.
“Right now the way the land use laws are written (ball fields) wouldn’t be allowed and they are looking for more passive recreation,” Stirn said. “We think this is an ideal spot and we designed it for what is allowed.”
Stirn added that the ball fields would be allowed at the park through the Parks and Recreation master plan, but that the plan has not been approved by the county.
LUBA allows for parties involved in a dispute to seek mediation of their differences even during an appeal.
“We hope the county and the von Lubkens will respond to our request for mediation and see if we can come up with a solution before we spend any more money on attorneys’ fees and staff costs,” Stirn said.
While Parks and Recreation needed to get planning commission and then county commission approval to build the park, it is not a county body and is part of a separate parks and recreation district with its own governing board. It was that board which approved going forward with the park and also approved an appeal to LUBA.
However, the legal bills for both are paid by county taxpayers.
In August, the county commission, by a 4-1 vote, overturned the county planning commission’s approval of the park. In May the planning commission had voted 4-3 that putting a park on property, which was formerly orchard land, would not cause significant change or increase the cost of a farming practice on lands devoted to farm use, per ORS 215.296, and then voted 6-1 that the park, with conditions, was an allowable use on exclusive farm use land and met threshold of “passive and low-intensity” use.
That decision was appealed by Fritz and Joann von Lubken to the county commission. At an Aug. 6 meeting the commission ruled that the planning commission had erred in allowing a conditional use permit for the park.
Among the concerns raised by the commission were that through the excavation and re-distribution of dirt at the site, the lot would never again be suitable for agricultural use; that the loss of high-value orchard land, particularly in the pear industry, could have a negative impact on agriculture; that the Parks and Recreation district had failed to properly identify “surrounding lands” which would be affected by the park and meet the “burden of proof” needed for approval.
“I don’t know how in the state of Oregon with our land use laws you can argue that decision. We wish they hadn’t done it but that’s their right,” Rivers said of the appeal to LUBA.
The property for the park, a 31.4-acre parcel located at the corner of Barrett and Alameda Drive, was purchased by Parks and Recreation in 2007 with the purpose of land-banking it for future expansion.
At the time, the Hood River County Commission wrote a letter of support for the purchase to the Oregon Parks and Recreation District.
“This land acquisition will enhance the Park District’s ability to meet the long-term Park District Master Plan and the trail connectivity opportunity supports the proposed 14-mile Westside Loop trail.”
In the last sentence of the support letter, current commissioners Ron Rivers, Maui Meyer and Les Perkins and then-commissioners Chuck Thomsen and Barbara Briggs, wrote that “with the District land banking this key parcel, they will avoid future unaffordable land purchases.”
If completed, the proposed park would include open playfields, space for radio-controlled flyer areas, a mountain bike skill development area, picnic shelters and trailheads for the Indian Creek trail.
“Two separate government entities (the City of Hood River and the County) and our board has determined this is something which works with our master plan to provide this recreational space and will meet future recreational needs for our residents,” Stirn said.