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Coastal boom on the tide.

Byline: Winston Ross The Register-Guard

BROOKINGS - In the late 1800s, U.S. Borax Inc. bought a rugged chunk of property on the southern Oregon Coast and sunk a mine into it to search for boron, used in Fiberglas and detergents.

But the company soon found a bigger boron lode in California's Death Valley that is now the largest open pit mine in the country. The Oregon parcel - dubbed Lone Ranch - has remained mostly wild, infused with the pungent odor of mint, the abundance of fat, ripe huckleberry bushes and the majesty of moss-covered Sitka spruce trees.

Now Borax is back, with a new idea for its century-old investment: the biggest single residential development to ever hit the Oregon Coast.

After nearly two decades of land use wrangling, Borax is nearing approval to build 1,000 homes just north of Brookings, the coast's southernmost town. The only development that rivals it is a three-phase, 1,829-home project called Villages at Cascade Head in Lincoln City.

Borax's plan includes a 10-acre parcel for Southwestern Oregon Community College and 2 acres of retail so people won't have to drive to town every time they need something.

But the Borax plan is only the beginning. Two other landowners south of town are mulling over developments that could add another 2,000 homes to the Brookings area, doubling the town's population in the next 15 to 20 years.

As the coast continues to bulge with retiring Californians and other big-city refugees, Brookings has become the focal point of a debate over how to accommodate the boom.

"There's no way to turn the spigot off," said Burton Weast, a spokesman for Borax. "No way you're going to avoid being a place where empty-nesters from 45 to 65 want to live. This is where they want to be."

Brookings city planners and developers say the sheer size of the properties allows for sensibly planned projects, providing a way to manage growth that avoids the Lincoln City-like sprawl that plagues other parts of the coast.

But farmers and environmentalists worry about the impact. The Borax project overlooks a popular state park and the property itself is home to as many as 1,000 endangered western lily plants - possibly the largest collection in Oregon and among the biggest in the country. Some residents also fear that Brookings won't be able to handle the load placed on its water and sewer systems, or that the Borax development will harm stands of old-growth trees, endangered plants and ancient Indian archaeological sites.

Meanwhile, the two southern parcels sit atop Easter lily and hydrangea farms that can produce crops valued at $25,000 per acre annually. Farmers believe the homes could cause flooding and suck dry underground aquifers they rely on to grow much of the nation's supply of the sensitive flowers.

"Our big concern is whether the development on the hill is going to destroy us," said hydrangea farmer Richard Yock. "We feel it very likely could."

Popular place

Brookings bills itself as the "banana belt" of Oregon, thanks to temperatures that generally hover between 50 and 70 degrees year-round. That's due to the "Chetco effect," a term used to describe warm winds carried to the coast along the Chetco River, which empties into the ocean here.

It's a great place to live as far as the climate goes. And because it's the first Oregon Coast town across the border from California, Brookings' southern neighbors have been moving here in droves for decades.

In the 1980s, Brookings grew 30 percent - almost 16 percent in 1988 alone. The city now contains nearly 6,000 people, up from 4,440 in 1990. And there's no sign of it slowing down.

"For whatever reason, Brookings has been discovered," said Dave Perry, who monitors the southern coast for the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development. "It's kind of astounding."

That's why developers have no doubt that the homes they build in the city's newly expanded urban boundary will get snapped up.

"These people retiring are looking for places to go," said Hank Westbrook, who owns about 600 acres south of town and plans to put as many homes as he "responsibly" can on the site. "They've got the money to pay cash for anything they want. They've sold a house that maybe cost them $50,000 - for $500,000 or $600,000 or more."

Which is why, after using the land for grazing and timber through the years, Borax has since 1988 been trying to develop its own parcel.

But a battle over the size of the city's growth boundary locked up the process for more than a decade. Environmental groups such as 1000 Friends of Oregon fought the city's attempt to expand the boundary - at one point by 5,000 acres - calling it far too massive. City officials countered that much of that land wasn't developable, given the steep and rugged terrain.

In 1995, after a judge finally approved the expansion, the Brookings urban growth boundary doubled - from 3,500 acres to 7,000. It was the largest single expansion of a town's growth boundary in state history at the time, and it brought Borax, Westbrook and Bill Buchanan, another large landowner, into the fold.

Water and flowers

The first group to come up with a building plan was Borax, which owns about 650 acres on the east side of Highway 101, about three miles north of town. The property is just above Lone Ranch State Park, created on land donated by the company. Borax plans to phase in a mix of homes, townhouses, apartments and a retail area.

It already owns two water wells on the property, which spokesman Weast said are capable of pumping 200 gallons a minute to avoid burdening the city's water supply, taken from the Chetco River.

Last week, the city's Planning Commission recommended approval of the company's 20-year master plan, which clears the way for a vote by the City Council on Sept. 13.

Weast, who grew up in Curry County and California's neighboring Del Norte County, said he's excited about what the development will mean for Brookings. The town has suffered from "haphazard" growth for decades, he said.

"You've got million-dollar houses 300 feet from trailers," he said. "It's growing a lot at a time. There's a tremendous shortage of affordable economy housing.

"This is a rare opportunity for any city in Oregon; with the master plan process, the community and the city will get an opportunity to see what the project will look like over 20 years."

Still, there's at least a small movement working against the project, led by the same group that opposed the city's growth boundary expansion: Citizens for Orderly Development.

Pete Chasar, the group's secretary-treasurer, said the Borax homes will tax the town's water and sewer systems, and the property's environmental resources are undercounted and ill-protected.

"Where is the water and sewer capacity going to come from?" Chasar said. "This growth is great for the people who are cashing out on their property. But what about the rest of the community that has to pick up the tab?"

Last month, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service weighed in as well, disputing the company's required count of the federally endangered western lily population. Borax surveys found only 46 lily plants on the site. Fish & Wildlife inspected five wetland areas out of 43 on the property. On just three of those wetlands, inspectors found 142 plants, field supervisor Craig Tuss said in a letter to the city.

Since the agency looked at just a fraction of the Borax property, Tuss wrote, the number of endangered lilies overall could "easily exceed 1,000 plants, making it the largest population in Oregon and the second or third largest population known." Tuss asked the city to reconsider the lily figures and postpone project approval until a true count is taken.

Meanwhile, hydrangea and Easter lily farmers are worried about the other two developments. The parcels sit above farms along the Harbor Bench, a strip of land on the south end of town.

The sensitive flowers rely on healthy amounts of water and moderate temperatures, said Yock, the hydrangea farmer. If the hills get socked in with homes, rainwater has less soil to sink into, which means it's more likely to flood the creeks that run down the Harbor Hills and into the ocean. Eventually, that means floodwater will actually pull water out of the underground aquifer, carrying it to sea, Yock said.

"Once you take the water, I don't know what our alternative is," said Carol Crocket, who owns Winharbor Farms, which produces lily bulbs on a farm near Yock's. "It's really the end."

Gradual growth

Imagining the size of all the developments can be frightening, Brookings city planner John Bischoff conceded.

"People have the idea that they'll wake up and see a thousand homes up there the next morning," he said.

But it's important to remember that the real estate market drives development, not the other way around, Bischoff said. The homes will only be built and sold as fast as they can be purchased. Even if 3,000 homes sell in the next 20 years, it won't exceed the town's projected 3 percent growth rate, he said.

"Right now we're in a boom. Somebody puts their house on the market and it's gone," Bischoff said. "But five years from now, that could slow down." The median sale price of site-built homes is now $298,750.

Land use and environmental laws will ensure the protection of the Chetco River as a water source and of the lily and hydrangea farms on the Harbor Bench, he said.

It's also an advantage to be working with large tracts of land, said Onno Husing, executive director of the nonprofit Oregon Coastal Zone Management Association, a Newport-based group that represents coastal governments. That luxury isn't available for most of the coast, thanks to its narrow strip of developable acreage between the mountains and the sea.

"It's a shame that within areas we know we're going to urbanize, the ownership patterns of small lots by many different people make imaginative and cutting-edge land use planning difficult," Husing said. "You have fractured, divided ownerships of small parcels."

But some cities are mulling over the idea of using eminent domain to obtain several pieces of property and redevelop them, Husing said. And rich outsiders are constantly tearing down some of the coast's more unattractive and rundown structures in favor of new development, he said.

"Along the oceanfront, it's not unusual to see what were previously old beach shacks redeveloped into much larger beach homes," Husing said. Still, with mountains on one side and an ocean on the other, the coast doesn't have much room to grow.

"There is the fundamental challenge," he said. "Everything to the west is undevelopable."

But conservationists see the problem differently. The coast developed poorly because Oregon was in a recession during the late 1970s, when the state passed the stringent land use laws that govern new building today, said Fran Recht, conservation chairwoman of the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition.

Desperate for income, cities bowed to developers' whims, and the coast's narrow corridor turned into a series of strip malls. Good development comes from good planning, not big planning, she said.

"It's a matter of vision," Recht said.

If it wins approval, Borax will probably start building water and sewer lines next spring. The other two developments haven't yet been planned.

Winston Ross can be reached at (541) 902-9030 or rgcoast@oregonfast.net.

BORAX PLAN

Single-family homes: 540, ranging from $200,000 to $250,000. Some will have an ocean view.

Townhouses: 150, ranging from $160,000 to $200,000

Multi-family units, including apartments: 360

Commercial area: 2.43 acres to possibly include a grocery store, Laundromat or other conveniences

Southwestern Oregon Community College: 10 acres for a Brookings campus

CAPTION(S):

The Chetco River and the temperate climate it harbors are part of the area's attraction to new residents, many from California. Hydrangea farmer Richard Yock worries that development on the hill above his property would deplete the water supply. Popular Lone Ranch State Park lies below the planned U.S. Borax development, on land the company donated.
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Title Annotation:Real Estate & Housing; Controversial 1,000-home development may be the first of three for Brookings
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 22, 2004
Words:2040
Previous Article:GETTING HELP A FIRST STEP TO GETTING OUT.
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