The federal Land and Water Conservation Fund has been good to Southern Oregon — and the state as a whole — helping to fund land purchases that have boosted such popular projects as the Bear Creek Greenway, Jackson County Sports Park and Valley of the Rogue State Park.
But legal wrangling over a private school's exclusive use of a Medford public park is casting light on other land deals related to the grant program, which is administered by the National Park Service, that could make future grants harder to get.
The National Park Service is questioning the use of the 7.5-acre Table Rock Park by Cascade Christian High School. It's also running out of patience with the Oregon Department of Transportation, which has used open space purchased with conservation grants for road projects.
In Southern Oregon, at least six parcels of land purchased through the conservation grant program have been converted from open space to some other use, but the practice is not unique to the Rogue Valley. The park service has turned up the heat to resolve about 70 similar issues statewide, many of which have dragged on for more than a decade.
"At some point, the state runs the risk of being ineligible for the program if it is not making progress on all of these issues," said Gloria Shinn, project manager for the Park Service.
If a government agency receives a conservation grant for a particular piece of land and then decides to use that land for something else, the Park Service would typically like the agency to replace that land with a similarly valued piece of property — before converting it to another use. But often that requirement is delayed or ignored by government agencies, Shinn said.
Some government agencies — specifically the Oregon Department of Transportation and the city of Medford — are not living up to requirements of the conservation program, which pumped $2.6 million into Jackson County to create open space, she said.
Since 1965, the state has received $58 million in Land and Water Conservation Fund grants, including almost $900,000 that went toward land purchases for the Bear Creek Greenway, which runs from Ashland to Central Point. But some of that greenway land, about two acres worth, was used to build the north and south Medford interchanges, and ODOT failed to replace it with land of similar value. More open space is scheduled to be bulldozed when the Fern Valley interchange is built in Phoenix.
The National Park Service has repeatedly advised ODOT and other agencies that this practice has gone on too long, Shinn said.
"When the city comes in for another grant, we will tell them we still have these concerns — can you help us out?" she said.
Shinn said the park service has gone on record with ODOT as saying it is very wary of entering into any more agreements on land swaps because of these unresolved issues.
ODOT officials said they are working toward a resolution, but noted it's difficult to find equivalent replacement property.
ODOT isn't the only agency on the park-service hot seat. The city of Medford and land involving three local schools have also drawn the agency's ire.
Washington Elementary School still has unresolved questions because of a media center that was built at least partially on conservation land, which would require the purchase of replacement land, Shinn said. The media center issue dates to 1997.
A question also remains about the handling of a lease that was renewed on property at Wilson Elementary School, Shinn said.
The city of Medford has been singled out over a small sliver of land — purchased around the former "Big Y" intersection using $8,595 in conservation grants — that was needed to build a new intersection to connect Crater Lake Highway with Rossanley Drive in 2002.
Brian Sjothun, director of Medford parks, said he couldn't comment on conservation grant issues because of a lawsuit filed with the county over Table Rock Park.
"I'm working with our city attorney to resolve these issues," he said.
The issues surrounding Table Rock Park have caught the attention of park service officials in Washington, D.C., Shinn said.
"When the property was acquired, it was put forth to the National Park Service that it would be used to maintain the natural corridor along Bear Creek," Shinn said.
Instead, under a lease agreement with the city of Medford, Cascade Christian High School has invested $140,000 in creating a field used for school sports activities in exchange for exclusive use of the park. According to county estimates, the school has exclusive access to the property 65 percent of the time during daylight hours.
When parks officials brought the problem to the attention of city officials, Sjothun responded in a letter on June 13, 2009.
"In regards to your concerns about the development/agreement listing CCHS with priority use of the facility and that this is in violation of the Land and Water Conservation Fund program rules, I would have to concur with this concern as well," he wrote.
Sjothun explained the city and the school didn't purposely ignore the restriction, saying it was an oversight. He said the city would be willing to work with state parks officials to resolve the problem.
The park can be accessed only through Cascade Christian's parking lot, then by following a narrow driveway behind the private school.
Jackson County sued the city in 2010, asserting ownership of Table Rock Park and claiming the city reneged on a deed restriction that requires the park to be open to the public at all times.
Jackson County transferred the property to Medford with a reversion clause that says the park would automatically belong to the county again if it is not used for its intended purpose by the city.
Jackson County Circuit Court ruled Monday there is enough evidence for the case to go to trial.
The county originally purchased the park for $60,675 using a combination of Land and Water Conservation grants and county dollars in 1982, but transferred the property to the city of Medford in 1984 with the understanding it would remain open to the public for scenic and open space.
County officials filed the suit after discovering the school locked the gates to the park on various occasions.
The county is also disputing a provision in the school's lease agreement that gives the school the option to buy the land from the city. Under conservation grant rules, land can only be swapped for land of equivalent value. The city, in court documents, asserts that the school could purchase the land as long as it finds another property of equivalent value to trade.
The city also maintains that because of improvements made by the school, the park is more useful for the public. The land was previously overgrown and had an aging barn.
"The city's lease with CCHS does not change the fundamental nature of the park and, in fact, is a mechanism for the city to improve and maintain the park for use by the public," the city said in court documents.
The city cites various exclusive leases the county has for its parks to illustrate that the situation with Table Rock Park is not unique. In particular, various businesses have long-term leases with the county at the Jackson County Sports Park, officials said.
However, the city's court documents don't clarify whether the county properties had the same deed restrictions as those for Table Rock Park.
Conservation grants did provide $128,000 for the purchase of the land for the drag strip at the Jackson County Sports Park in 1978. Because of the nature of the drag strip, the deed restrictions on that property have more flexibility to allow a lease agreement between the county and an organization.
Park service officials say they have no record of problems with land purchased with conservation grants by Jackson County at the sports park or any other properties. In fact, the park service noted the county was following its requirements under the conservation act to swap the Givan Ranch property near Eagle Point with another property of equal value.
But reports filed by national and state park officials show an extensive record of frustration with ODOT and other agencies over their failure to replace park land that was developed for other uses.
An inspection report for the National Park Service concluded that portions of a 17-acre parcel for the Bear Creek Greenway were being used for a highway project to improve the flow of traffic around the north Medford interchange. The situation is still unresolved, though the project is complete, according to the park service.
"Resolution here is way past due," a note in the May 9, 2001, national park report indicated.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email email@example.com.