Among those who opposed the bill was Gene Whisnant, who says he supported it “until Nolan changed the bill and put [the Land Conservation and Development Commission] in charge of policy and made changes that would make it economically not viable.” In testimony, he called the bill a “death sentence for rural resorts and the future of some of these rural areas.”
The 2009 bill was defeated, but resort reform came up again in the 2010 special session in a bill passed with bipartisan support that required, among other things, that developers provide an economic impact analysis of cities within certain distances of a proposed resort, along with a traffic analysis and mitigation plan.
Spurred by the defeat of the 2009 resort reform effort, Dingfelder assembled the resort work group — a broad coalition of developers, environmentalists, city and county associations, and state and county leaders with the goal of creating a “new destination resort model that promotes economic development for local economies and is consistent with Oregon’s resource values.” They are working through this year to recommend changes to the existing state statue in the 2011 session.
“I think there are a number of things outdated,” says Dingfelder of current resort rules. “The requirement that there are a set number of acres; the golf course requirement. For instance, no eco-resort model would be allowed. It doesn’t allow for innovation.”
Current standards for large resorts require at least 160 acres of farm or forest land (unless within two miles of ocean, then it’s 40 acres); and resorts must spend at least $10 million on onsite recreation and visitor-oriented accommodations, including restaurants for at least 100 people and 150 separate rentable units. At least 50 of those overnight units must be constructed before the sale of any real estate — a 2007 court affirmation that Jeld-Wen’s Jerry Andres says put the dagger into the heart of the industry.
“The hope of the work group and rural counties is to reform the law to match the vision of a different kind of resort: smaller, greener, leaner,” says Brian Clem, a member of the group. “The law itself is a barrier to a different kind of resort.”
Linda Swearingen says she sees a possible new future not just for new resorts, but those already approved and sitting dead in the water.
“I think we have an opportunity [during the downturn] to work with the entitled resorts and the older Goal 8 resorts and allow them the opportunity to downsize in exchange for some changes in how they develop,” says Swearingen, who was on the development team for Crossing Trails, a 600-acre resort approved by Crook County in 2008 that faced vocal opposition from residents and is being appealed. The plans for Crossing Trails called for 500 homes.
“My hope is to look at what’s already on the ground, the existing entitled resorts, to make them more environmentally friendly, more economically feasible.”
“It’s kind of ironic that now the industry wants a ‘new kind of resort’ that’s really a subdivision,” says Paul Dewey. “They want to build smaller resorts with no requirement of overnights or recreation … The 2-1 ratio [of homes to overnight units] was fraudulent enough.”
To Hood River County Commissioner and developer Maui Meyer, helping this stalled industry is not the point. “Lost in the discussion is will this help people living in rural communities have a better life? Does the grocery owner benefit? To the extent that you can make a living, not a killing, out of it, no one will begrudge resorts,” he says. “But this is not a savior to the rural communities.”
Clem, the chief sponsor of the bill to ban resorts in the Metolius, says he wants to reform the laws to make resorts more economically viable and to mitigate impacts of resorts. “But my concern is not how to bail out resort developers. It is how to enhance the economy of rural economies.”
It’s a critical question about destination resorts: Do they really help rural areas? But there isn’t a definitive answer. Opposing developer and environmentalist camps do not trust each other’s economic studies. After approving eight resorts, Deschutes County — currently remaking its resort map — plans to produce its own “neutral” cost-benefit analysis of resorts for the first time.
Supporters say they clearly help fill county coffers and provide many much-needed jobs (estimated at 2,000 in Central Oregon) without huge impacts on nearby communities. Opponents counter that the proliferation of resorts have huge negative impacts on nearby towns and the environment while creating mostly low-end jobs.