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Jacksonville land swap plan's ready for a council vote

JACKSONVILLE — A long-debated swap and sale of city watershed land to the Motorcycle Riders Association for cash and land the group owns adjacent to the city's Forest Park likely will come to a City Council vote following a public hearing Tuesday.

The meeting takes place at 6 p.m. at Old City Hall, 205 W. Main St.

In December, the City Council entered into a memorandum of understanding with the motorcycle group on the potential sale. The city could gain 40 acres with parking improvements and a minimum of $680,000.

The motorcycle riders would secure 380 acres higher in the watershed adjacent to land they already own.

A sale depends on the motorcycle group securing a grant from the state's Park Division Off-Highway Vehicle Fund or other sources.

"There's motorized activity on the lower part, and it conflicts with hiking and other activities," said Tony Hess, who has helped develop Forest Park. "The land swap would solve the issue and separate the two activities."

But others think the deal would increase conflicts and pollution.

"It removes the buffer between the MRA properties and Forest Park," said Larry Smith, a member of the Save the Jacksonville Watershed coalition. "These machines create noise pollution, water pollution and air pollution, and the area is extremely unstable."

Debate about use of the watershed and the potential sale has gone on for nearly 10 years, fueled by multiple issues, including the city's need for money to fund capital improvements and repairs. Funds derived from the sale can be used only for capital expenses.

"I feel the prospect of over half a million dollars is blinding the council as quick riches," said Smith. "I don't think they are reasoning this out."

Several city properties require work or replacement. The reservoir dam in Forest Park needs repairs or removal. The fire house has been cited as unsafe in the event of a large earthquake. In addition, the city is in the process of assuming ownership of historic buildings, including the courthouse, from Jackson County. The structures have backlogs of deferred maintenance.

The City Council has designated 1,080 acres in the lower watershed for park use. Jackson County has issued a permit for park activities on 880 of those acres. The 380 acres the motorcyclists would obtain is outside those areas.

Hess said grants for park development total about $50,000. He estimates at least $20,000 in volunteer labor has gone into construction of 10 miles of trails and other features.

At present, OHVs unload at the parking lot and ride on roads through Forest Park to get to the MRA land. If a sale occurs, club riders would be required to stay in the upper section. Competitive events would be limited to 250 riders.

Public sentiment has favored not selling the property, said Smith.

A 2005 petition drive produced signatures from more than half of voters urging no sale for OHV use. A 2007 citywide process resulted in a declaration to retain all 1,880 acres of the watershed for non-motorized use.

A public vote on the issue should be held, said Smith. A 2010 vote on the issue was called off, in part, because state law may not allow voting on a single property transaction.

Calls to MRA President Steven Croucher were not returned. Attempts to reach other MRA representatives were unsuccessful. Croucher has previously said his group is comfortable with current arrangements, but that an exchange could yield improvements.

An appraisal of the city's 380 acres gave a value of $1.03 million for the parcel, including timber. The MRA land was valued at $167,400 with improvements. In addition, the city would need to repay the Oregon State Parks Department $128,000, which represents grants awarded to the MRA for improvements. Another $54,630 would be taken off the city lot valuation for MRA land acquisition and engineering costs.

Council voted, 5-2, in December to further explore the exchange, with Councilwoman Donna Schatz and Councilman Dan Winterburn casting the dissenting votes.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.