McKENZIE BRIDGE - With Belknap Lodge booked full through the summer and on most weekends for the rest of the year, Norm McDougal figures there is demand for another resort near the top of the McKenzie River Valley.
That's why McDougal, a developer and head of a prominent Lane County timber family, bought the rustic, 69-acre Camp Yale campground last year. The property, three miles southwest of Belknap, sits on the scenic Old McKenzie Highway, just off of Highway 126 and roughly 60 miles east of Eugene.
McDougal wants to spend $3 million building a dozen multiroom cabins and a 30-room lodge, expanding the existing camping areas and creating two or three spring-fed pools. He'd like to build a destination spot similar to Belknap, with its famous gardens and springs and its easy access from the highway.
"We'd like to make it an overflow for Belknap and give folks room to play," McDougal said.
But his idea has appalled
land use watchdogs and environmentalists, who say the development would be too dense for a forest setting and could pollute a tributary of the McKenzie River. The parcel is surrounded by the Willamette National Forest.
The scope of the development violates Lane County's land use code and Oregon land use laws, critics say.
McDougal's plan might bring some jobs and money to the McKenzie River Valley, but opponents say they don't want to see such a heavy and busy commercial use cluttering the relatively pristine landscape.
These days in Oregon, approvals for lodges and recreational cabins on forestland are a rarity. State land use rules generally discourage such development.
Despite the local protestations, a Lane County hearings official in April gave McDougal tentative approval to build the lodge. The official is expected to make a final ruling later this month.
Meanwhile, McDougal plans to use a 16-year-old special use permit to proceed with the cabins. Jesse Staton, a previous owner of Camp Yale, in 1986 obtained that permit to build a dozen cabins on the site. The county has said McDougal can use that permit.
Veteran land use watchdog 1000 Friends of Oregon, which is based in Portland, and a young but increasingly active local group, LandWatch Lane County, are helping battle the McDougal plan.
"We want to make sure the standards of the forest zones are adhered to," said Nena Lovinger, a board member of LandWatch. "We're not against lodges and resorts being created in zones that permit them."
But what, exactly, do the terms "lodge" and "cabin" mean? That's one of the issues the sides are fighting over, with critics saying McDougal's plan exceeds what is legal.
The 1.3-acre site for the lodge, at the northeastern edge of Camp Yale, is zoned rural residential. Lodges are allowed in such zones with the approval of a hearings official, county officials said.
The rest of the Camp Yale site is zoned F-2, or "impacted forestland." The tag applies to forestland that already has some type of development.
In 1986, when the county issued the special use permit authorizing the cabins on the forestland, the county was encouraging such developments, said Mike Evans, a consultant working for McDougal. The county has since tightened the rules, making it harder to build cabins on forestland. But because the county issued the permit long ago, it is now bound by the old rules on this site, Evans said.
In addition to allowing cabins of unspecified size, the 1986 permit authorized construction of a new septic system, additional RV spaces, and a shower and laundry facility.
Opponents, aided by LandWatch and 1000 Friends, are appealing McDougal's cabin plans to the state Land Use Board of Appeals. Meanwhile, an appeal opponents filed in April over the lodge approval is on hold while the hearings official reconsiders his tentative decision.
Among other issues, opponents worry that sewage and wastewater from the entire development could pollute a nearby tributary that flows into Lost Creek, a salmon spawning ground that feeds into the McKenzie River.
And anger lingers over the highly visible clear-cut logging of Camp Yale in May 2000, when 40 acres of trees, many of them big Douglas firs, were felled.
"Many people were profoundly saddened by that ravaged landscape," Lovinger said. "This was a beautiful, forested site that was destroyed."
In April 2000, land use consultant Geraldine Betz, who frequently works for McDougal, bought Camp Yale from Staton. Betz hired loggers to harvest the site, with the aim of later developing the campground.
The logging drew bitter protests from McKenzie Bridge area residents. Highway 242, the Old McKenzie Highway, connects McKenzie Bridge to Sisters, snaking past waterfalls and over ancient lava beds. The highway is designated as a state and federal scenic byway. But there is no requirement that property owners leave a forested buffer along the road when they log, so Betz's crew logged right up to the road.
Betz sold the property to McDougal last year. Betz said she lacked the cash to proceed. "He has deeper pockets than I do," she said.
Consultant Evans said much of the current disagreement boils down to competing visions.
"They see a clear-cut as a violation of what they feel a campground should look like," Evans said. "Norm (McDougal) owns the land and he has a different idea."
McDougal has sown lawns and installed sprinklers and has contoured much of the property in preparation for developing the campground. Vast areas in the parcel have been bulldozed into a smooth, open surface. Trees in and around a 15-acre wetland have been preserved.
Opponents say the clear-cut logging violated the 1986 special use permit McDougal is relying on to build the cabins. The permit states that only diseased or dying trees or "those necessary for access and actual construction" could be cut. The county has not assessed any penalty over the clear-cut.
Evans said the permit allowing the cabins also mandated fire breaks around the structures, and he considers the clear-cut to be one large fire break. "We could have left a tree here or there, but that would have been unworkable," he said.
"We want to make it look nice," McDougal said. "It's not there yet, but it will be, eventually."
McDougal is now drilling wells, hoping to tap into a hot spring to feed the pools he wants to build.
McDougal certainly has the cash for the project, if his work at Belknap is any indication. The McDougal family bought Belknap in 1995 and has upgraded the 16-room lodge, the cabins and the camping and RV spaces. The family built what visitors describe as world-class gardens.
Pointing to Camp Yale's manicured lawns framed by boulders that now front the Old McKenzie Highway, Jim Baker said such a development has no place in the forest.
"It's not natural," Baker fumes. "If you want an urban park, go camp in the city."
Baker, a self-described "rural Republican environmentalist," is president of the McKenzie Guardians, an environmental group of valley residents formed in the 1970s.
Baker, who lives near Finn Rock, west of Camp Yale, contested the initial county approval of the 30-room lodge. If county hearings official Gary Darnielle grants final approval to the lodge, Baker said he will appeal to Lane County commissioners, and if that doesn't work, he'll go to the Land Use Board of Appeals.
"I think this (developer) is cutting a lot of corners and getting a lot of rubber stamps," Baker said.
Baker's appeal, as well as the appeal to LUBA over the cabins, are complex arguments over land use law, and often boil down to interpretations of county and state rules.
Baker argues in his appeal that the county land use code allows only paternal lodges or granges in rural residential zones, not the resort-style lodge McDougal is proposing.
Evans counters by noting that four resort-style lodges operate in the McKenzie area on land zoned rural residential.
A sticky issue is the sewage that would be generated by the lodge.
McDougal's proposal calls for using a septic tank that's already on the rural residential property. The sewage would be channeled to a drainfield that is on the portion of Camp Yale that is zoned for forest use.
"There is no provision for importing sewage from rural residential to F-2 (forest zones)," Baker said. "It's not allowed."
Baker also said the proposed drainfield is a bog where standing water is visible during the winter and spring.
In his tentative decision approving the lodge, hearings official Darnielle said state rules allow the sewage disposal method proposed by McDougal.
Evans said McDougal would have to obtain a state Department of Environmental Quality permit for the sewer system to ensure the development would not pollute the stream that runs through the property.
If Baker prevails in his sewage argument, Evans said the lodge could still be built, though it might have to be scaled down to 25 rooms.
"We would just drop down the number of units" and keep the drainfield on the rural residential property, he said.
Meanwhile, the appeal to LUBA filed three weeks ago by 1000 Friends on behalf of John Karinen, who owns forestland next to Camp Yale, argues that the cabins McDougal plans to build do not meet the dictionary definition of "cabin."
McDougal's plan calls for spacious homestyle buildings, not small, simple dwellings.
Karinen, who lives and works in Alaska, could not be reached for comment.
Lauri Segel, a planning advocate with 1000 Friends who has spoken with Karinen, said he worries about sewage pollution from the development.
Jim Just, a legal researcher for 1000 Friends, said the county erred when it decided there was no limit on the size each cabin could be.
Evans said McDougal is considering building two- and four-bedroom cabins.
But Just said the word "cabin" does not connote a four-bedroom structure with kitchens and bathrooms. "Cabin in the dictionary is defined as a primitive, rustic structure," he said.
McDougal said he's not surprised by the opposition. "You kind of expect it these days," he said.
Environmentalist Jim Baker stands along the edge of Camp Yale, the site of a controversial clear-cut in May 2000 along the Old McKenzie Highway. A developer's plans to build cabins and a lodge on the site anger Baker and other environmentalists.