Mill site deal still brewing

Scott Swanson

The county has agreed to sell the former Willamette/Weyerhaeuser mill site to Sweet Home businessman Josh Victor, but the deal is still in the works. 

County Commissioners agreed unanimously at their Feb. 8 meeting to sell the 154-acre property east of 18th Avenue to Victor, who was one of two bidders in an auction conducted by the county for the land, which was foreclosed on Dec. 31, 2010. 

At their next meeting, Feb. 15, Victor asked commissioners to delay recording of the property deed until he can complete a Phase I environmental study. Staff said the $800,000 transaction is complete, but Victor would like the deed recording delayed until he can get an environmental insurance policy. The commissioners asked Victor to provide his request in writing and to work with County Administrative Officer Darrin Lane, County Attorney Gene Karandy and Property Manager Rachel Adamec. 

A Phase I study would assess whether current or historical property uses have impacted the soil or groundwater beneath the property and could pose a threat to the environment and/or human health. Such issues can present potential liability for a lender or owner, and affect the value of the property. A Phase I ESA can provide legal protection for a purchaser who had no knowledge of the contamination at the time of purchase, and who may be able to avoid Superfund liability as an “innocent landowner” if they comply with proper requirements. 

Both county and city officials have expressed concerns about the presence of toxins on the property and the possibility that it might return to county hands if a buyer couldn’t carry out cleanup operations. 

City Council members sent a letter to the county on Jan. 28, the day after the auction closed, asking that any bidders on the property enter into a prospective purchase agreement, which guarantees protection from the EPA to a purchaser in return for specified benefit to the community, environment or government. 

Without a PPA, said Blair Lar-sen, Sweet Home community and economic development director, “the city would be left without a lot of options.” 

“The city is concerned that if a buyer wasn’t given time to get one of those if they wished, a potential buyer could be held liable for the state of  the property,” he said. “That could have consequences if a buyer were to get tied up dealing with environmental issues. That liability could potentially end up putting the property back in county hands in a few years. That was the concern the council brought up.” 

Victor has said his plans for the property include “entertainment”-oriented uses: a restaurant, a lounge, a distillery, a brewery and a wine-tasting venue, among them. 

He has said he wants to create “attractions” that would draw people to Sweet Home, in conjunction with events put on by the Oregon Jamboree.