Earlier this month I wrote a 4,000-word story on the shaky future of large destination resorts in Oregon. Here’s the abridged version: The housing collapse, over-saturation and public outcry has stalled any new big resorts, those given an exemption to build outside urban growth boundaries in hopes of spurring tourism for rural economies.
Sen. Jackie Dingfelder’s work group looking at the state rules on resorts was in mid-swing when I was reporting that story. Her group, comprised of a broad coalition of environmentalist, developers, governments and others, met again on July 16. On the agenda was a tour of both Pronghorn and Sunriver, arguably the yin and yang of destination resorts. Sunriver, one of the first, is a successful tourism magnet that helped Bend grow. The newer Pronghorn has been criticized for being gated resort and unfriendly to visitors (famously not allowing Rep. Brian Clem in), and called nothing more than a rural subdivision by some. At an earlier meeting, Dingfelder said she thought Pronghorn should never have been approved by the county.
More importantly, the group discussed proposed changes to the resort rules. With large resorts dead in the water (for now), Dingfelder said the rules for those will remain intact and the group is focusing on new rules for small-scale resorts. No resort has ever been sited under the current guidelines for small-scale resorts.
“The people in Deschutes probably aren’t happy,” she said. “They want to get rid of destination resorts, but this doesn’t do that.” The Deschutes County Commission has approved every resort that has been brought before it and the county now suffers under the weight of eight large destination resorts. Foreclosures there are among the highest in the nation in that county.
The resorts are an exception to land use rules under Goal 8. Large ones are allowed on farm and forestland in exchange for investing substantially upfront in recreational amenities and overnight facilities so that they are tourism draws and not just housing subdivisions. When the second-home market was roaring, that seemed like a good deal for developers. Now that the market has collapsed, they are saying the requirements for large resorts are too onerous. Current rules for small resorts allow 25-75 units of overnight lodging and are not allowed on resource land. Too small, developers say, to make them economically viable. It reminds one of the Goldilocks and the Three Bears story: this one is too large, this one is too small, but something in the middle is just right?
The group's proposed changes for small resorts include raising the maximum size to 200 units; or 400 units if done in conjunction with forestland conservation. Only one development would be allowed per county for a trial period, and it would have to be at least five miles from any UGB with a population of 2,000 or less, and at least 24 miles from any UGB with a population of more than 100,000. The resort could be between 20 and 100 acres with the intent being “to keep footprint small to minimize wildlife and other offsite impact.” A site up to 200 acres and 400 units would be allowed “if done in conjunction with a purchase or transfer of development rights on adjacent or nearby forestland.”
“Everyone said the draft proposal had merit and will move forward,” Dingfelder said. “The framework is there but the details will change. The question is what’s the effect of a lot of small developments in one county? The reality is there still has to be a market and there has to be a natural amenity there.”
Also after my story published in the July issue, I got an email from Shane Lundgren, part of the development team of the Metolian, a resort approved by Jefferson County in 2006, and then killed by the Legislature in 2009. He makes some interesting points around the current interest in smaller, more "eco-friendly" resorts that I didn't cover in my story, so I'll quote him at length:
"It is an absolute travesty that the mentioned legislators [in your story] are using language from our application to describe what they would like to see in the next version of an Oregon resort. You had an opportunity to reveal the fact that despite taking an active initiative to kill our proposal, they are now actually espousing our ideas. Of course, they don't have the guts to invite us to participate in the discussions! If you hear Brian Clem's recitations of the vernacular, he still parrots the words 'eco and green' but that would be about the extent of his intellectual capacity. None of them know anything about how our plans were to be capitalized and how they would have paid direct dividends to the environment through our fund."
Dingfelder said she hopes to have a proposal ready to send to the legislative counsel by the end of September in preparation for the 2011 session. Given the controversy around resorts, Dingfelder doesn't expect a particularly smooth path for changing the rules, despite the support of her broad coalition work group.
“Is this going to be the end of it? I doubt it,” she said.
There’s no doubt any proposed change to existing rules will jump through a lot of hoops if it makes it to the 2011 session. And the debate goes on in rural communities as the work group chugs along. In a letter to Dingfelder on July 14, Cameron La Follette, the land use director for Oregon Coast Alliance (ORCA), urged caution with encouraging small resorts. “Because very different land uses are often right next to one another on the coast, even a small resort can impact many more people and environments than might be the case elsewhere,” he said. “I realize the many difficulties that attend the large subdivision-based resorts in Central Oregon. Certainly smaller resorts designed specifically for overnight lodging would solve many of those problems. ORCA’s concern about such a model for resorts is that it may very likely prove damaging to the coast.”
According to LaFollette, “Curry County recently became the only coastal county to complete the required ordinance and mapping for resorts under Goal 8 and the county is beginning the review process for the tentative master plan for Crook Point Resort, a large resort proposed for land south of the Pistol River.”
The more than 200 acres proposed for the golf resort is next to the Crook Point Unit of Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge and Pistol River State Park. “Both protected areas are wild, with few humans, no development and (in the case of the NWR) restricted access,” he said. “The land proposed for the resort is also uninhabited, and as ecologically rich as the adjacent public lands. A resort in this location, however focused on overnight accommodation, will have major effects on one of the loveliest, wildest, and most ecologically fragile areas on the whole coast.”
He added that “by and large, coastal counties are poor, especially on the south coast. Resorts have every potential to suck out resources the county would otherwise use for much-needed infrastructure repairs or upgrades, and focus them entirely on the resort. This is something coastal counties can ill afford.”
On the same day that letter was written, the Curry County Reporter published a story about a planning commission meeting on Crook Point that packed the Showcase Building at the Curry County Fairgrounds.
According to the newspaper: “By the time the 3½-hour Curry County Planning Commission meeting was over last Thursday the Crook Family, their team of developers, engineers, and their lawyer were somewhat ashen-faced. The large, detailed and presumably expensive application for a golf resort was met with myriad questions from Planning Commission members.”
Public comment ranged from support for the jobs that the resort would bring to concern over the environmental impact. The same issues that residents of Deschutes and Crook counties grappled with as those resorts were approved, and the same issues that will continue to be debated as Oregon struggles with how to help rural communities without harming the very towns and environments that make them so special.
Robin Doussard is the editor of Oregon Business.