Security, tax base concerns lead Lyle school board to restrict Cherry Orchard access

Hikers wishing to access Friends of the Columbia Gorge-owned Lyle Cherry Orchard property can no longer reach the trail via Lyle High School following a decision by the school board.

The decision to eliminate access to the Cherry Orchard via school property was reached by the Lyle School Board last fall and was made in conjunction with revoking the school district’s support of the Friends’ desire to further develop a trail system on the 550-acre property.

According to a letter sent to the Friends by Lyle School District Supt. Dr. Glenys Hill on Oct. 24, 2013, fear of impacts to the local tax base fueled the school board’s choice to eliminate trail access on school property.

Prior to last fall, hikers could park at Lyle High School and access land owned by the Friends via the horseshoe-shaped gravel loop around the school. The school board’s decision terminates a 10-year agreement that established the parking area and trail access under the stipulation that the Friends conducted regular litter cleanup and the school be able to use the trail for “reasonable daytime education, athletic, and recreation purposes.”

Recreationists who wish to access the Cherry Orchard can now only get on the trail via the official trailhead off of SR 14 after the Lyle tunnels.

“I do not believe that the board is necessarily in opposition to the work of the Friends of the Gorge — they simply want to maintain maximum assessed value for the property on the roles of the Lyle School District in order to keep rates as low as possible so that voters will support future levies,” Hill said in an email to The Enterprise.

A decreasing tax base in Lyle is a large concern for a school district that has seen two failed levies prior to 2012 when program and staffing reductions were made before the district was placed on “binding conditions” status by the state. The most recent levy that passed in 2013 will not begin to benefit the Lyle School District until the 2014-15 school year, according to Hill.

The board began re-examining its support of the Friends and allowing hikers to access the Cherry Orchard after a presentation by Oren Johnson, a Lyle resident and landowner who has been vocal in his opposition to further development of trails in the Lyle area.

“Long story short, when property is removed from the tax rolls it is unable to be taxed and voters’ tax rates increase, so Oren’s concern that the Friends were actively campaigning to acquire taxable property and remove it from the tax roles resonated with the board and was a further concern that prompted this decision,” Hill wrote.

Renee Tkach, project manager of the Friends’ Gorge Towns to Trails effort to connect a system of trails to urban areas throughout the Gorge, said the organization has no plans to sell the Cherry Orchard property, which was originally donated to the Friends by its founder, Nancy Russell.

“In terms of selling to a public agency, that is not on our radar currently. That piece of property was donated by Nancy Russell and is definitely historical and is almost a tribute to our founder,” Tkach said.

She added that the Friends pays property taxes on the 550 acres that make up the Lyle Cherry Orchard, including the 10 acres that are considered an urban area, though it technically doesn’t have to because of its designation as a nonprofit organization.

But fears surrounding loss of tax base in Lyle were not the only reasoning behind the board’s decision to rescind its support of the Friends and restrict access to the Cherry Orchard via school property. Security played a large role in the decision, as well.

“In light of school trespassing, disruption, and school shootings, the school board has determined not to allow visitors/strangers onto our campus … without a direct purpose relating to the adopted instructional program,” Hill wrote in a letter dated Jan. 29, 2013, to Tkach.

Hill added in an email to The Enterprise that teachers have noticed hikers continuing to access the Cherry Orchard via school grounds, so signs stating that all visitors must report to the school’s main office have been ordered. She added that the termination of the agreement with the Friends will not have any impact on the use of school facilities for members of the community that use the grounds from time to time.

“This was a little unsettling, as we require visitors on school grounds to check in at the office. We do not allow strangers with no school business to be on our grounds during the school day, so without any way to monitor these people who were on school grounds to access the trail we felt our ability to provide a safe environment for our students was compromised,” Hill wrote.

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