County to revisit Crawfordsville Drive zone decision

Scott Swanson

Developers and neighbors of a proposed plan map amendment and zone change on a 108.59-acre property on Crawfordsville Drive will take their case back to the county Board of Commissioners Tuesday, Sept. 21, after two years of legal wrangling.

The board will hold a remand (“send back”) hearing at 10 a.m. on Sept. 21 at the Linn County Expo Center in response to a state Court of Appeals decision last year that reversed an earlier ruling by the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals, which had reversed the county’s approval of the project.

At issue is how the applicants’ proposal to subdivide the property fits into county planning designations that set aside lands for agriculture, forestlands and natural resources, scenic and historic areas, and open space. A majority of the property has been designated as big game habitat by both the county and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Applicants Ronald and Virginia Henthorne and developer Lynn Merrill applied in May of 2019 to rezone the parcel, located north of Crawfordsville Drive and the Calapooia River and northeast of Crawfordsville and the intersection of Brush Creek and Highway 228, from farm forest to non-resource five-acre minimum zoning. The majority of the property is designated as big game habitat by Linn County, which, neighbors argue, disqualifies it for the type of development proposed.

Merrill told The New Era in 2020 that he planned to divide the property and build between 10 and 17 homes.

The project was approved by the Commissioners John Lindsey and Will Tucker – Chairman Roger Nyquist was absent – on Aug. 6, 2019, a fact pointed out by opponents. In October of that year, neighbors appealed the decision to the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA), which reversed the county’s decision.

The plaintiffs, by this time, had gotten help from Thousand Friends of Oregon, a watchdog group for the government agencies whose purpose is to be independent of partisan politics and which is tasked with managing land use issues.

The applicants then took the case to the state Court of Appeals, which reversed LUBA’s decision,

reversed LUBA’s decision, determining that “LUBA erroneously failed to defer to the county’s plausible interpretation of its own comprehensive plan.” The court only pinpointed one aspect of LUBA’s decision, and the land use board issued another ruling this past February, that the county must evaluate how the developer’s plans would impact the mapped wildlife habitat on the property and present that analysis in its findings.

“The county’s failure to conduct the required analysis forms the basis for remand in this case and undermines the county’s findings in its original decision,” Andrew Mulkey, staff attorney for 1000 Friends of Oregon, wrote in a letter to the county detailing the opponents’ concerns.

Neighbors have submitted written testimony to the county, saying they moved to the area expecting that the county’s planning standards would persist.

Due to the volume of testimony, the county has posted comments at http://www.co.linn.or.us/index.php?content=planning/Comments/RemandHearing.

“I felt quite secure that the wildlife habitat and wildlife populations were well-protected by county law,” wrote Debra Branson, who has owned property adjoining the parcel in question for 30 years.

Another, Brenda Wilson, argued that the necessary logging and road-building that would come with the project would be “devastating” to wildlife.

“We and our Crawfordsville community strive to protect the fish and wildlife and their habitat,” Wilson wrote.

“We and most of the people who live in this small community of homes along Crawfordsville Drive do truly care about the wildlife that free roam the mountains and use the river, and that often frequent our yards.”

Neighbor Phillip Callaway, whose property also abuts the Henthorne Ranch land, said changing the zoning would “remove many of the protections provided by (farm/forest) zoning for the protection of wildlife habitat.”

Jennifer Ringo, ODFW acting watershed manager for the South Willamette Watershed District, said her department determined that the applicants’ plan for managing big game “does not adequately address the impacts to big game habitat.”

She said a 2019 recommendation by her department, to “minimize” the number of dwellings in the development, “has not been incorporated into the plan.”

She said ODFW identified areas on the property as “providing important functions and values (e.g., cover, forage) for deer or elk.”

Ringo also noted that her department “had not concurred with the applicant’s big game management plan” and that although an ODFW biologist visited the site in January of 2019, “the applicant had no defined plan and was asking for preliminary concepts to incorporate into this effort.”

She said that, although “the applicants said they would forward their future big game management plan for review prior to applying for the change in land use,” that plan never materialized. Two additional site visits by ODFW occurred in August of this year, she said.

Merrill wrote that developers had been working “jointly” with an ODFW big game biologist, starting early in 2019, and that the department had not commented directly to Linn County in the early stages of the history of the project.

He said ODFW’s comments in 2019 “show that the agency thought the proejct resulting from the zoning was feasible, without negative impacts to wildlife, and they would assist with advice on later design and development.”

Merrill said the management plan for the property would increase the amount of food produced for deer. He said overgrowth has stunted production of “hundreds of fruit trees, scattered large oaks, and large pine trees” and that thinning “would add many tons of summer and fall fruit that help deer fatten up for the winter,” along with improved production of acorns from the oaks and pine cone seeds for wildlife.

“Big game are highly adaptive to human land management,” Merrill wrote. “Any hunter knows how deer seem to know the boundary lines between public land, private land and game preserves.”

He said he expects the deer in the area to “take advantage” of “habitat improvements and protections against hunting or ranging of domestic pets.”

Neighbor Harry Gerlach wrote that the south-facing hillside on the property is unfit for growing trees – “it’s only good for ponderosa pine, poison oak and blackberries, so why not open it up to residences?”

But he expressed concerns about the Crawfordsville Drive roadway in the area, which, he said, “is too narrow and in mediocre condition.”

Brenda Wilson also voiced concerns that any “conflicts of interest be declared by the full board while there is full attendance of the public,” and asked that the matter be heard by the “full board” of commissioners.

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