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ANOTHER VOICE: Forget Barrett, find a site that works

The Hood River Valley Parks and Recreation District has a well-deserved reputation for delivering a lot of public benefit on a small budget. Given that reputation, the District’s recent decision to spend $300,000 in local and state funds on a radio flyer field at its Barrett Drive property is perplexing. The district has identified ball fields as our community’s number one need while a radio flyer field doesn’t even appear on its master plan.

The Barrett property was a risky bet from the beginning. In 2006, the District purchased the 31.4-acre pear orchard zoned high-value exclusive farm use (EFU) for $610,000 in hopes of building ball fields. Oregon’s unique land-use system is designed to preserve the maximum amount of the limited supply of farmland by placing heavy restrictions on non-agricultural uses of property zoned EFU.

Before it purchased the property, the district was warned by state agencies that developing a park would be a long shot and that its plans exceeded what would be allowed in an EFU zone. The district even had its first conditional use permit denial from Hood River County. Despite these red flags, the district purchased the property anyway.

The official warnings of eight years ago have proved to be correct as the Board of Commissioners denied a park at the property again last year. Barrett Park cannot be used for ball fields.

With a big, multi-purpose park off the table, the district now plans to sink an additional $300,000 into the only uses it has approval for — creating a field and facilities for radio-controlled aircraft and additional landscaping for the existing trail along the edge of the property. Beyond discussing the site plan with the local radio flyer club, the district has conducted no public process on the new proposal to determine public need or support for allocating $300,000 in funding towards these uses.

Radio-controlled aircraft is a fun and worthy hobby, but with just 42 paid members in the local club, the size of the investment seems out of proportion to the benefit. For those of us who walk on what is already a very nice trail, it’s hard to see the priority for expensive improvements when weighed against the other important projects the same money could fund.

For example, $100,000 of those funds could provide lights for two baseball or soccer fields, dramatically increasing field usage by allowing evening play time.

The district has argued these improvements aren’t really for the radio flyer field and trail but are instead investments for “future uses.” In other words, it is hoping that if it waits long enough it will eventually get its way and be allowed to build ball fields at Barrett.

Eight years have passed since the district focused its efforts on Barrett. A kid who was in fourth grade when the property was purchased will be graduating from high school this year.

The need for more ball fields is greater than ever. The district spent over $85,500 on attorneys and consultants in its last land-use appeal, but this has brought us no closer to solving the county’s number-one priority problem.

It’s time to stop wishful thinking and focus district funds on a real solution. If we need more ball fields, the district should work with community partners to purchase appropriate land, and we should build ball fields. Tying up limited funds in low-priority efforts is just throwing good money after bad.

It’s hard to admit you made a mistake, but strong organizations know that it is the best way to move on and accomplish your goals. Sell Barrett; don’t sink more money into it. Use the funds to develop real ball fields we can use next year, not placeholders we can use in the unlikely event the state and county change their interpretation of Oregon’s land use laws.

There are properties within our urban area, in walking or biking distance for many kids, which would be suitable for ball fields. While urban land is more expensive, a host of local government agencies and private groups stand ready to partner with the Parks District. This is an opportunity for all of us to come together and find a real solution.

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Polly Wood is president and Heather Staten is vice president of the Hood River Valley Residents Committee, whose mission is to protect Hood River Valley’s farm and forest land and the livability of its cities and rural communities.

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