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Jacksonville land swap falls short

JACKSONVILLE — A November vote on a swap of city-owned watershed land for property adjacent to a city park appears to be dead after an exchange proposal was withdrawn.

The Motorcycle Riders Association has sent a letter to the city saying it was withdrawing from negotiations to swap 380 acres in the city's upper watershed in exchange for 40 acres, plus approximately $845,000.

MRA President Steven Croucher said Wednesday that deadlines for a state Parks Department grant that might provide the group money for the exchange were unworkable with a November vote. But he said the group wants to leave open the possibility that the idea could be revived.

"The biggest reason was the timeline," said Croucher. "The grant cycle ... required a letter of intent in October. We were just put into a timeline that wasn't going to be conducive."

The City Council voted in July to put the matter before voters. The city and MRA have negotiated for two years on an exchange that would see the city gain a 40-acre parcel with parking next to Forest Park in the lower watershed. MRA would have gained land in the upper watershed that connects to other land it owns.

"When we had initial discussion with the city, I had gotten verbal assurance that it would be the council making the final decision," said Croucher. "As an organization, we weren't inclined to put a bunch of member effort on the streets of Jacksonville to get a favorable vote." Mayor Bruce Garrett said the election would have been problematic in any case. State regulations, he said, preclude votes on items such as the sale of individual property because those actions would be considered administrative rather than legislative.

"It doesn't fulfill the requirement to be a ballot measure if you are looking at doing a particular, specific action as opposed to a more global action," said Garrett.

"Singling out a particular piece of property, or a particular group or individual, that's administrative."

MRA hoped to get grant money for the deal from a state fund created by gas taxes paid by off-road vehicle users. The group would have needed approval from 11 separate government agencies before submitting an application.

"We were really pushing it close, had we been able to make a decision a month ago," said Croucher. "It would have probably taken the help of the city of Jacksonville and state parks."

After a public hearing on the land swap July 6, Councilman Paul Becker immediately made a motion that was seconded to send the issue to the voters. When that passed 5-2, more discussion was precluded. Garrett and Councilman John Dodero voted against the motion.

"I'd like to see more discussion at the council level," said Garrett. "That sort of got pre-empted with that vote."

Garrett said he anticipates the council will withdraw the measure at its Aug. 17 session.

"That's pretty much the outcome that will have to be made," he said.

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