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Now or Never: County's resort map remake opens door for developers amid questions of viability

As the de facto legal team for Deschutes County's only credible environmental watchdog group, Paul Dewey spends more time than most people thinking about destination



As the de facto legal team for Deschutes County's only credible environmental watchdog group, Paul Dewey spends more time than most people thinking about destination resorts.

He thinks about the water that they suck from the ground, the cars that they put on the road, and the land that they gobble. And they've been doing a lot of gobbling.

A recent study by his organization, Central Oregon LandWatch, found that the number of resort homes and overnight units at Oregon's destination resorts is set to triple if all the recently approved and proposed resorts were completed. That's a big "if," given that many of these resorts are located in Central Oregon where the real estate bust has been especially severe.

Several resorts have slowed or halted construction as demand has fallen off the chart. Buildable lots with golf course frontage and mountain views that just a few years ago were snapped up in a matter of days, or in some cases hours, now sit vacant. At Remington Ranch, a 2,000-acre resort with 800 homes in Crook County, work on the resort's three golf courses has recently stalled - after completing just nine holes - amid the slumping real estate market, according to a recent story in The Oregonian. And there are plenty of other examples of pain in the resort development industry. So you can understand if Dewey was a little puzzled to see elected officials recently dust off a four-year-old plan to redraw Deschutes County's destination resort map, potentially adding thousands of acres of previously off-limits land to the county's stock of resort-ready inventory.

At this point, the county is planning a roughly year-long process with public hearings and mass mailers to solicit input and refine the plan. Planners have already met with nearly 20 interest groups, including community organizations, conservation groups and business interests.

The initial proposal drafted by staff at the direction of the planning commission would remove thousands of acres from the existing destination resort map that are impractical for resort development, including public lands, rural subdivisions and lands that are geographically unsuitable. The move could shrink the total eligible - if not viable - resort acreage in Deschutes County by 80 percent or more. But it would also allow landowners, previously ineligible for resort development, to petition for inclusion.

And it's the last part that has some resort critics concerned.

"There are all these partially developed and approved resorts out there," Dewey said. "Why would they think about expanding? But it's always about more tax dollars and more revenue.

"The agenda is clearly not about regulating, but facilitating. The county mantra has always been, 'The more resorts the better.'"

Commissioner Dennis Luke, a former state legislator and the longest-serving commissioner on the current board, takes exception to such characterizations. Luke said he isn't of the opinion that all resorts are good, even if they are one of the largest single sources of tax revenue - both property and overnight room - for the county. He points out that he voted against one of the more controversial resorts, the sprawling Thornburgh Resort at Cline Buttes because of its impact on the county transportation system. (The resort was approved anyway, but remains tied up in litigation before the state Land Use Board of Appeals and Oregon Supreme Court - where Dewey recently argued that it is not properly accounting for its impact on local water resources.)

While some people may not like the idea of resorts, the other option for the county is to do nothing. In that case, the county could be forced to answer questions about when, where and how it wants other resorts built when a developer comes forward with a proposal. Luke said that's not the way he would like to go about the discussion.

"You need to be able to sit down and take the time and think things through," he said. "When you have an application you have time constraints. It doesn't produce good law."

Luke's colleague Tammy Baney agrees. A political moderate, Baney ran in part on a platform advocating that the county do a better job of long-range planning. A reworking of the destination resort map fits right into that vision, Baney said in an interview last week. It also dovetails with the county's ongoing update to its comprehensive plan, which is even more dated than its resort map.

"People could say the timing is off, but it's only when the money is coming in that we plan. But we never have time to achieve the end result - one that is an open-ended, two-way discussion," Baney said.

Still, she said that she is aware of the criticisms of resorts: that they are a drain on natural resources and have evolved into exclusive subdivisions with far more year-round homes than overnight rentals. Baney said she shares some of those concerns, too.

"We have some damage control of things that were allowed to happen that shouldn't have happened," she said.

However, she said that shouldn't preclude the county from trying to revise where future resorts might be developed. She envisions a future where resorts are geared more toward attracting tourists than second homeowners. Any resort proposal that comes across her desk is going to have to have to meet those standards.

"The county has learned a lot from the school of hard knocks," Baney said.

But if the commission has cooled on the idea of resorts as an economic panacea, it hasn't yet embraced the idea that they need to be reined in immediately - a position that's become increasingly mainstream, not just in Central Oregon, but across the state. This past legislative session, Gov. Ted Kulongoski, working with the Department of Land Conservation and Development, put forward a bill that would have dramatically curtailed future resort development. The bill, HB 2227, took a back seat to the battle over the Metolius and eventually died in a committee in the waning days of the session, in part because of aggressive lobbying by the resort industry and counties, including Deschutes, that see resorts as an economic boost.

Both Baney and Luke confirmed that county commissioners gave their lobbyist Mark Nelson explicit orders to torpedo Kulongoski's resort bill.

"It was two words: 'Kill It,'" said Baney, adding that county opposed a top-down process driven by the governor's office, a position that Luke seconded.

"It would have been a state process, a decision made in Salem and I don't like that - no matter how the decision comes out," said Luke, citing the Metolius as another example of Salem running roughshod over local decision makers.

Resort critics counter that it was local control over resorts that led to the abuses and ultimately the calls for reform. Dewey said that any discussion of resorts has to start with fundamental reform of the underlying laws, including an immediate accounting of the total impact of the resorts on local resources - something that his group has tried to tackle. Last year, it released an economic study of resorts that argued the public would be subsidizing the aforementioned Thornburgh Resort to the tune of $46 million once its impact on roads, parks, schools and emergency services are fully accounted.

While some observers have downplayed the significance of opening up the resort map to new lands, saying the current economic climate is unlikely to produce many requests, Dewey isn't so sure. Landowners have nothing to lose by requesting inclusion, getting their foot in the door with very little investment. Because the county can only revisit the map every 30 months by law, people want to get in now before other changes come down from Salem or otherwise, he said. For example, one rule already on the books prohibits destination resorts from being sited on lands within 25 miles of an urban area with a population over 100,000, a benchmark that Bend is rapidly approaching.

"Everybody knows the 30-month rule," Dewey said. "It's like the Oklahoma land rush. You better get your horse and wagon in there now."

Not all conservationists are as skeptical of the county's work, though. Carol Macbeth, the local advocate for 1,000 Friends of Oregon, applauded the county for its extensive outreach over the past few months, which she called a model for other agencies. She said the county planners' focus upfront on traffic impacts and a proposal requiring would-be developers to show that there is water available for their projects is a step in the right direction. But the group isn't entirely without concerns. The county's initial decision to include smaller parcels of irrigated farmland is a concern, Macbeth said.

"We were hoping they would leave that out under this new iteration," she said.

Whatever lands are mapped, though, the owners and developers will have to go through the extensive application process already in place if they want to actually site a resort, said Peter Gutowsky, a senior county planner leading the project. At this point Gutowsky said there's been very little interest from the development community in obtaining additional resort lands.

"The state of the economy isn't generating an enormous amount of interest for re-mapping," he said.

Nor has the process been geared toward developers, Gutowsky said. Rather, the county staff has tried to engage as many stakeholders as possible in an attempt to learn what direction the community wants to go with resorts. Whatever direction that is, it's going to be better served by a map that accurately reflects where resorts can and should be sited in the county, he said.

For resort opponents like Dewey, though, it's an odd prioritization to engage in a process that will open the door for more resorts without a full accounting of the impact of the ones already approved.

"For the county to be spending this much time for something that is so environmentally and economically unfit for these times is mind boggling," Dewey said.

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