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11th-hour change stalls golf course

The Billings Ranch Golf Club is on indefinite hold after developers withdrew their application for a permit to build the 18-hole course and clubhouse just outside northwest Ashland.

The developers are uncertain whether they will redesign the course and submit a new application to Jackson County planners.

Mike Peru, the managing partner for the Billings Ranch Golf Group who has worked on the project for five years, said it will take at least 30 days to review plans and the project budget.

"I'm just about fed up with this process," said Peru, estimating that $300,000 has been spent on planning efforts. "I don't know what we're going to do. I've got to make some decisions."

County planners have canceled a public hearing about the development that was scheduled for Feb. 9 in Medford.

Land dispute

Eagle Mill Road resident Gael Kubli said he had given initial approval for use of his property for the golf course with the understanding that the course would not include a parcel of county land that includes a Bear Creek Greenway segment.

Kubli opposes use of the public greenway land for the golf course.

The application submitted by developers included both Kubli's land and the county parcel.

"The permission he granted was based on a development plan that didn't include the county land," said Raul Woerner, county planner III.

Without Kubli's agreement with the development plan, county planners were preparing to send the application back to the developers and to cancel the public hearing if the application had not been voluntarily withdrawn on Tuesday, he said.

Kubli said he made his objections to use of the greenway land clear months ago.

He said he ended negotiations with developers because of his concerns over use of the greenway land and because he found the developers' offer to buy his land unacceptable in terms of price and conditions.

"Back in September, they knew I was against using that county parcel," Kubli said. "I'm not in it for the money. My land is not the discussion. I was an advocate for the citizens in protecting their rights to this parcel."

Woerner confirmed that Kubli has long indicated his opposition to use of the county land.

But until this week, he had not submitted a written statement withdrawing the power of attorney he gave developers to pursue a project that used his land, even though planners had requested the statement, according to Woerner.

Peru said Kubli pulled out of the project at the 11th hour, just two weeks before the public hearing.

"For him to do something like this is unconscionable," Peru said.

Project defended

Developers may submit a new plan that would include property owned by John Billings and the county parcel, without Kubli's piece, Peru said.

Billings owns the bulk of land for the project, but lacks about eight acres to meet championship golf course size requirements, he said.

Development of the golf course would not have restricted access to the greenway and surrounding natural area, according to Peru.

Temporary netting could have been put up to shield greenway users from errant golf balls, but that would have been removed as trees grew up along a fairway, he said.

Golf course crews would have maintained the greenway, which is suffering from cracks and slumping because drains are not being maintained and water is accumulating. Crews would control the thistles and blackberries in the area and plant native vegetation, according to Peru.

A portion of golf course revenues also would go to the county for the greenway, he said.

Peru said Billings' long-term dream to build a golf course has run up against strong anti-growth sentiment.

"I call it the 'Close the door theory.' I'm here, so close the door. That seems to be the temperature of people around here. Don't let anybody else in," Peru said. "But slow, controlled growth is a good thing."

The golf course would cost $6 million, while the clubhouse would cost $3.5 million. The course would generate 30 to 40 jobs and attract visitors who would spend about $3 to $4 million annually, he said.

However, area residents speaking at a Monday night Ashland Parks and Recreation Commission meeting on the issue worried about competition with the city-owned Oak Knoll Public Golf Course, use of pesticides and water, lack of access off the greenway, a proposed on-site septic system, habitat loss and other impacts.

Peru said the Billings Ranch Golf Club would attract Oregon Shakespeare Festival patrons who are less likely to use the city-owned course.

Use of chemicals and irrigation water would be minimal, he said.

"This is a high-tech business now. We would have managed irrigation and fertilization with no run-off. It would all be contained on site with ponds, bioswales and filters before introducing it into the creek," he said.

The septic system would be technologically advanced enough to handle the sewage easily, according to Peru.

Developers and the City of Ashland also have had preliminary discussions for the golf course to use the city's warm sewage treatment plant effluent for irrigation, while cold water would stay in Ashland Creek and not be withdrawn. The Billings family has Ashland Creek water rights that predate the founding of the city, Peru said.

The city faces tightening Oregon Department of Environmental Quality standards against the release of warm water into creeks and rivers. The standards could force costly cooling measures.

"It's a win-win," Peru said.

Landscapers would plant 700 or 800 trees along the fairways - trees that would replace those lost years ago when the land was converted to farm use, he said.

Developers needed to win a conditional use permit for the project, which is on land zoned for Exclusive Farm Use and partially on land within the Bear Creek Greenway Zoning District and an Area of Special Concern overlay for the greenway, according to county planning documents.

If developers submit a plan to use the Billings land and the county parcel, they will need to secure an amendment to the Bear Creek Greenway Comprehensive Plan, Peru said.