Wallace Bridge planner tries again
Round One of the Wallace Bridge saga was a doozy, with appeals, reversals and plenty of political machinations. Round Two started Thursday with re-submission of the conservation easement modification that has sparked local and regional controversy for the past two years.
J.W. Millegan, developer of the international equestrian center proposed for development on lands near the intersection of highways 18 and 22 outside Willamina, wrote this in submitting a renewed plan to the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service:
“As you know, the impartial hearings officer at NAD (National Appeals Division) ruled that this easement modification meets all the regulations and should be granted. In addition, numerous studies, including studies by your agency and a recent study by ECONorthwest using NRCS criteria, clearly show that the easement modification should be granted.
“The modification standards were established by Congress,” Millegan continued, “and the agency is required to follow these rules.”
The 29-page submission sent to the NRCS Thursday, accompanied by many related reports and studies, emphasizes six differences from the original 2012 request:
* As of this month, development company Carlton LLC “will be the sole owner of this property.”
* An extensive search for reasonable alternatives to the Wallace Bridge site “has been unsuccessful.”
* The NRCS for three consecutive years “has sprayed with herbicide the land Carlton wants removed from the conservation easement to kill invasive vegetation.” The proposal argues that NRCS and US Fish and Wildlife have been unable to establish a viable habitat on that portion of the easement.
* The proposed modification would “increase NRCS control of wetland and riparian lands by 80 percent over the current easement.”
* A National Appeal Division hearings officer analyzed the case and concluded that “all of the easement modification requirements had been met.”
* A study by ECONorthwest found that “potential habitat values, if the easement modification was approved, far exceeded the potential habitat values from the existing easement.”
Millegan’s extensive plan calls for a sprawling complex featuring an inn and arena with stables, corrals and trails, capable of hosting international-level horse shows and other equestrian activities. To work on the proposed site, the plan would requiring trading acreage for parcels now included in a permanent conservation easement overseen by the NRCS, thus the modification request.
That original easement modification proposal was rejected by the NRCS with this position: “The modification will not facilitate the practical administration of the easement area,” and absent that, “there is no compelling need to modify the easement boundary.”
In late 2013, however, on appeal to the NAD, a hearings officer declared that rejection of Carlton LLC’s easement modification proposal was an error that violated statutes and NRCS’s own internal policies. However, when the NRCS appealed that action, NAD Director Roger Klurfeld reversed the agency’s hearings officer, declaring that Millegal was not a legal “participant” in the appeals process so the NAD could not consider his appeal.
Carlton LLC appealed for reconsideration, but again was denied. Millegan has spent the past several months scouring the north Willamette Valley and elsewhere for locations that could facilitate the Wallace Bridge development plan, and says that search has not produced a viable alternative.
Millegan hopes he will be considered a legal participant now because his company will own the land.
City and county officials from Yamhill and surrounding counties have voiced support for the Carlton LLC plan in hopes of much-needed economic development for the area. State and federal officials have added support, but thus far, none have made any progress in convincing the NRCS or its parent Department of Agriculture that the easement modification is in the best interests of the government, the environment and the local economy.
Re-submission of the easement modification request promises to reinvigorate the political debate surrounding Wallace Bridge and its potential to draw visitors and create jobs for the West Valley and surrounding areas. Millegan and his supporters have said that assistance from U.S. Ron Wyden would be essential to any success with the re-submitted proposal.