|By Peter Sleeth, The Oregonian, Portland,
Ore.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 20, 2007 --PORT ORFORD -- A state parks commissioner and her family are proposing to build a golf and residential resort on the Oregon coast -- on more than 800 acres of a family ranch sandwiched between two state parks and facing the ocean.
Oregon Parks and Recreation Commissioner Sue Musser's family has owned the property adjoining Cape Blanco and Floras Lake state parks for generations. Running through the property is the Sixes River as it forms one of the last roadless estuaries, as well as prime salmon habitat on an undammed river.
The land is used mainly for ranching and cranberry farming. Much of it looks the same as it did in the 19th century when Irish immigrants first settled the land. Parts of the ranch include sweeping ocean views, with the 1,895-acre Cape Blanco State Park to the south, also along the Sixes River.
The family wants to construct two 18-hole golf courses, a 250-room hotel and 150 single-family homes there, records show.
As one of seven commissioners on the Oregon Parks and Recreation Commission, part of Musser's job is to find and acquire new property for state parks. But the Sweet property, as her family ranch is known, has not been the subject of talks between the state and the Sweet family for more than a decade, said Tim Wood, director of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
The state is not currently trying to acquire the ranch for parkland.
Musser said she has had no conflict of interest in her family filing the Measure 37 claim to develop the ranch. Her private business and her public service are separate matters, she said.
"We're not sure we're even going to develop it," Musser said. "We're just looking at it. I don't see any conflict, and if there were . . . I certainly would abstain from any voting that would have any conflict."
Her brother, John Sweet, said the family filed a Measure 37 claim with Curry County seeking $28.3 million in compensation or a waiver of land use zoning on the property. He has been approached by developers and said the family is serious about development.
The Curry County Board of Commissioners is expected to waive the ranch's land-use rules May 21. Once approved by the county, the claim would need a state waiver that could be up to a year in coming, due to the crush of Measure 37 claims.
But there's a new complication: State legislators are close to sending voters a rewrite of Measure 37 this fall. The draft legislation would preclude any large-scale resorts such as the Sweets' plan.
Local opponents of any development on the land say the homes, golf courses and hotel proposed for the site would change the environment of two state parks that border the Sweet property. Cape Blanco State Park lies to the south, and 1,371-acre Floras Lake State Natural Area rims the property's northern edge.
Opponents also say another golf resort would alter the fortunes of the southern Oregon coast as golf courses and second homes replace agriculture and logging.
"It would be a huge shift and change" for the area, said Ann Vileisis, president of the Kalmiopsis Audubon Society. "There are others of us here who have a different vision for this place."
Development of the Sweet Ranch does indeed raise two different views of Oregon: On the one hand, a local family with roots running back three generations wants the right to make money on a ranch that is no longer profitable. The family looks to the successful Bandon Dunes golf courses to the north as inspiration.
On the other hand are local residents and conservationists who want to preserve the agricultural aesthetic that dominates this stretch of coastline from Port Orford to Bandon. The relative isolation of the area is an asset, they say, that needs to be preserved.
Already, Chicago developer Michael Keiser, the owner of Bandon Dunes, has said he may build more golf courses south of Bandon and north of the Sweet property in Coos County. That has alarmed some property owners in the area.
Sheep rancher Terry Wahl, 48, whose family has ranched the area for generations, says the proposed Sweet development and Measure 37 claims by large landowners are wrong for the south coast environment.
"It should not be allowed," he said. "We're going to lose Oregon -- big time."
The mouth and estuary of the Sixes River has the look of Ireland -- oceanside cliffs, jutting headlands and vibrantly green grasses. So when Irish immigrant Patrick Hughes landed at the Sixes River in 1860, it must have looked a bit like the Emerald Isle.
The Hughes family home still stands on the south bank of the Sixes, now part of Cape Blanco State Park. Across the river is the early-20th century home of one of his sons, now owned by the Sweet family.
Musser's grandfather and great-grandfather bought their land from the Hughes family. The entire area is dominated by a handful of large ranchers today, many with roots in the 19th century pioneer past.
The land along the Sixes River is classic Oregon -- verdant lowlands along an oxbow river channel that seems to feed the river effortlessly into the Pacific Ocean. It is one of the few river estuaries on the Oregon coast that must be hiked into, and it remains a vital area for wildlife. A land shelf to the north of the river's mouth would be the likely site of the resort development, according to plans on file with Curry County and an interview with John Sweet.
Also planned in the Sweets' Measure 37 claim are 150 homes, some with river and ocean views. How much of the development would be in sight of the two state parks is unknown.
Like Tillamook County to the north, southern Coos and northern Curry counties are unusual on the Oregon coast -- they feature a large area of flat farmland and timberland between the coast mountains and the beach. This wide expanse of coastal real estate, combined with a warmer climate than farther north, has long drawn a dairy industry, which evolved into a cattle and sheep industry, and now a cranberry industry. There are few towns, and much of the traditional agriculture remains the dominant force in the local economy.
Slowly, however, the march of tourism and second homes is moving in.
Curry County is so poor that it is looking for any economic development to help feed tax coffers.
Marlyn Schafer, county commissioner, said an airport adjacent to the Sweet Ranch could eventually land commercial jets and bring new business to Curry County.
The airport in question is state owned and was built in World War II. It is one of the longest runways on the Oregon coast. Curry County owns 40 acres of industrial land next to the airport and could build infrastructure, she said.
"It is a great project. I'd love to see it go," Schafer said of the ranch.
John Sweet said he hopes the development can go forward.
"We're interested in exploring this. It could potentially have good possibilities," he said. "Our children need something to do there. A six-way divide is no good (for an inheritance)."
He said he understands opponents of his project.
"I can't blame them. I respect their opinions," he said.
That his opinion stands to be assaulted is certain. From bird watchers to neighbors to political activists, the opponents are beginning to line up.
Cameron La Follette, of the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition, called the Sweet proposal "one of the most damaging and painful Measure 37 claims on the coast."
And Wahl, a laconic man who hesitates to speak against a neighbor's plans, said he cannot be quiet on this matter.
"I don't think that was the real meaning of Measure 37. I think what the timber companies are doing and what is happening here is just not right," he said, pausing between feeding the lambs. "My personal belief is it should not be allowed."
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Copyright (c) 2007, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore.
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