Metro seeks funding for new park space

In November 2006, metropolitan area voters will have a chance to vote on a proposal linked to thousands of acres of metropolitan habitat and green space.

The proposal will approve the selling of bonds to generate some $220 million. Those funds will be used to buy up separate parcels totaling as much as 5,300 acres, an area about the size of the present Forest Park.

“This is a tremendously important step forward for protecting the natural areas in our region,” said David Bragdon, Metro council president.

The funds will allow Metro, the Portland metropolitan area’s regional government, to buy up open space and natural areas throughout the Portland metropolitan area and to hold them in public ownership and trust, protected from development.

“We’ll be able to buy up park space, stream and river banks and headwaters for rivers, especially drinking water sources like the Tualatin,” explained Ken Ray, senior public affairs coordinator for Metro. “We’ll also be able to buy up habitat protection.”

Property owners within the target purchase areas would be approached for sale of their land at fair market value.

The proposed bond measure has three components.

The largest section, $165 million, would go to regional target areas: broadly defined tracts of land identified by scientific consultants as being ecologically significant to the region. Such areas would encompass water quality, habitat preservation and corridors connecting natural areas and green spaces.

Key areas for these purchases include extensions to Forest Park, particularly the Rock Creek headwaters north of Highway 26.

“We’d like to buy up some of those areas before they’re developed,” Ray said. “Especially some of the vistas and buttes on the southwest edge of Forest Park.”

$44 million of the funds would pass through to cities, counties, parks and other local jurisdictions on a per-capita basis to help develop local areas. In other words, local groups and sites could receive a sum based on their population head count.

This local funding would allow the creation of community projects for enhancing access to nature, water quality and habitat. While local spenders would not be allowed to use the money for baseball diamonds, soccer fields, etc., they could buy land for future parks.

“We’re getting lots of support from the public and from all sorts of nonprofits, like the Audubon Society and the Tualatin Riverkeepers,” Bragdon said.

Finally, $11 million would create an opportunity grant fund, a pool of money available via application from local nonprofits and community-based groups, school districts, local park districts and other smaller agencies.

These groups could apply to Metro for funding of community-based nature projects in urban areas. The Metro council is currently working to devise a series of qualifications for grant applicants.

The measure needs a “50 percent plus one” majority in order to pass. If approved, the bonds would be payable through property taxes over a 20-year period.

Property and homeowners would pay off the bonds, at a rate of 18 cents for each $1,000 of assessed value. For a home with an assessed value of $175,000, that comes to about $30-35 per year, with the annual amount expected to decrease over the 20-year period.

The bonds would affect property tax payers in Metro’s jurisdiction, encompassing some 25 cities and unincorporated areas from Forest Grove to Troutdale and south to Wilsonville.

“Voters in this region have expressed a desire to preserve natural areas, protect water quality, and preserve natural places that define the quality of life in this region,” Ray said. “We think voters will be receptive.”

In May 1995, a similar bond measure for $135.6 million was approved by some 62 percent of voters. The funds were used to purchase over 8,100 acres of natural space, including 74 miles of stream and river frontage.

Some of the more well-known purchases made with 1995 funds include Cooper Mountain in Beaverton, Mt. Talbert in Clackamas County and the “Springwater on the Willamette Trail,” a link between OMSI and Sellwood that is used by more than 400,000 people each year.

“People use parks for the recreation opportunities that they provide,” Bragdon said. “Where it’s possible to bring the public closer to nature while protecting the land, we’re glad to do so.”

Metro recently concluded a series of public forums on the proposal. Citizens were asked to weigh in on where new parks and green spaces might be, how they should be used and what they might look like.

With the forums completed, a series of three formal Metro council hearings begins on Feb. 23.

All hearings are open to the public, with public testimony welcome. The Feb. 23 hearing will be held at the Hillsboro Civic Center Auditorium, while the two following will be held on March 2 at the Damascus City Hall and March 9 at Portland’s Metro Regional Center.

At the March 9 meeting, the Metro council is expected to formally refer the bond measure to the Nov. 7 ballot. If the measure passes, funds could be available in early 2007.