County OKs mill site sale

Decision reached at contentious meeting

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following story includes contributions from Linn County Communications Officer Alex Paul and The New Era reporter Benny Westcott.


Linn County intends to sell the 146-acre former Weyerhaeuser/Willamette Industries mill site in Sweet Home by sealed bid in early February, commissioners Roger Nyquist, Sherrie Sprenger and Will Tucker agreed Tuesday, Dec. 14.

They reached that decision, however, after a reportedly oft-contentious exchange with present Sweet Home City Council members over an initial, more divisive verdict.

The commissioners entered the meeting with plans to partition property parcels for individual sale. But visiting Sweet Home representatives – Dave Trask and pro-tem president Diane Gerson, both of whom addressed the board, as well as Lisa Gourley – asked them to offer the overall acreage as one contiguous piece.

County property manager Rachel Adamec said she could advertise the process immediately. Sealed bids should be in the county’s possession no later than 5 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022. The commissioners will then open the bids Feb. 1.

The county’s actions came after a joint session with the council in November that apparently resulted in some confusion over an agreement regarding the site’s future. According to the minutes of the commissioners’ Dec. 7 followup, Tucker was to collaborate with county staff on a map of portions to be sold.

As reported in the Dec. 15 edition of the Albany Democrat-Herald, Gerson read from a letter presented as written on the Sweet Home City Council’s behalf.

“[T]he final consensus of the council, and agreed upon by you [the commissioners], was to place the property on auction,” she said. “Why were we presented with this idea if indeed it is not an option? Now, we’ve been told once again as a body that you’re changing direction.”

Over the years, Linn County has worked with the Department of Environmental Quality and Weyerhaeuser – which sold the property, shuttered after the Weyerhaeuser mill closed in the 1990s, to the Western States Land Reliance Trust for a proposed-but-never-realized housing development (the company filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in September 2010 after failing to pay $500,000 in back taxes, resulting in county foreclosure) – to identify and mitigate areas of environmental problems.

But several portions still have contamination concerns and an unknown amount of mitigation costs, which has caused issues for potential buyers. The county had previously offered the site for sale, rejecting four proposals at an auction in early September.

Gerson expressed concerns Dec. 14 that if the county sold areas cleared of contamination issues by the DEQ, “the dirty” ones would never be cleaned up, and “piecemealing” the property would diminish its overall value. The commissioners assured her that wouldn’t be the case, that the county would continue to work on contamination mediation until final DEQ approval.

The commissioners worried that if the property was sold as one unit, its new owner could partition contaminated areas into individual lots and stop paying taxes on them, forcing the county to reclaim them in lieu of unpaid taxes in six years. No contamination cleanup would occur during that period, leaving both the county and city in no better position, environmentally speaking.

Nyquist reiterated his belief that a hot housing/property market wouldn’t last forever, and that it is time to return the property to private ownership.

“The risk is waiting to get a clean bill of health from DEQ while the marketing opportunity goes away,” he said, adding that he was ready to sell as quickly as possible.

After a lengthy conversation, the commissioners asked the councilors to pinpoint their wishes. They were told the City Council had met Monday evening, Dec. 13, and agreed the property should be sold as one unit. The commissioners unanimously agreed to make that happen, then discussed whether to use an auction or sealed bid process to dispose of the property. They chose the latter.

The Sweet Home City Council met to discuss the verdict hours after the commissioners’ deliberations.

“Our ultimate goal is to get that mill property developed,” Mayor Greg Mahler said at Tuesday’s regular City Council meeting. “We feel we’ve been spinning wheels with that property. We’re struggling to figure out how to get the site developed, resolved and moving forward. There have been quite a few years of struggles to get this back on the tax roll. I think we’ve laid forth a plan that will be beneficial for us moving forward in developing the property.”

The visiting councilors, Mahler said, delivered a message regarding the overall body’s position, and that “The message got across,” although he admitted that its reception may have been somewhat mixed.

“I’m not sure the county commissioners took the message as it was presented,” he said. “I will be as bold as to say that I think there were some feelings hurt today, based on us being present and our message to them.”

Feelings notwithstanding, the mayor concluded that deliberations have “developed some options that we think will help move this forward. We’ll see.”