County planning to auction former Willamette Industries mill site

Sean C. Morgan

The Linn County Board of Commissioners is moving forward with plans to auction off some 172 acres of former mill property.

The property, the former site of Willamette Industries Sweet Home Mill, was the property of Western States Land Reliance Trust until the county foreclosed for nonpayment of roughly $500,000 in property taxes at the end of 2010.

Linn County previously deeded more than 220 acres of former quarry property, owned by Morse Bros. and later Knife River, along the south bank of the South Santiam River to the City of Sweet Home.

The mill property is located east of 18th Avenue and west of Clark Mill Road. It is located between the Knife River property to the north and reaches to the railroad tracks to the south.

The commissioners would like to “get it into private hands,” said Commissioner John Lindsey. “It’s what’s in the best interests of the community – to take that property and develop it into something. Our objective is not to own it.”

It might be harder to sell the larger property for development, but if five- and 10-acre pieces were available, a lot of developers would snatch them up, Lindsey said. The county has a shortage of larger developable pieces of land, and several developers are actively looking for parcels of that size.

Right now, it’s a fire hazard, Lindsey said, and “we’re not a development company. We’ve held this property for quite some time.”

“The ultimate goal from the day we received this property was to get it to a place where it’s an asset to the community and it’s utilized,” said Board of Commissioners Chairman Roger Nyquist.

Lindsey said the commissioners directed Russ Williams, the county’s director of General Services and Property Management, “to figure out how to legally auction this off.”

The auction will be just one step in the process, Nyquist said. The first step was to assess environmental problems. Now, the property is in a “buyer beware” status.

The property has a “type 2” environmental assessment completed, he said, and about four acres requires cleanup. The buildings have asbestos in them, which must be abated during demolition.

“It’s not serious contamination,” Lindsey said. “There’s ways to take care of that.”

Nyquist doesn’t think it’s likely anyone will buy the whole thing for what it’s worth, he said. If the property fails to sell at auction, the county can divide the property and sell it off in pieces.

“At that point, we’ll be able to create parcels that are free of contamination and readily developable,” Nyquist said.

“Before we can do that, we have to offer it up for auction,” Lindsey said. “To get this going, we’re going to have to go to the auction portion.”

In a perfect world, the property will be auctioned in May, Nyquist said. The idea is to get it onto the market while it’s still attractive to developers.

“The market would indicate somebody’s going to want to do something with that property,” Nyquist said.

“The sooner we can cut it up, the sooner we can get a bunch of this back in private hands,” Lindsey said.