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Neighbors have stake in protecting reserve.

Byline: Winston Ross The Register-Guard

CHARLESTON - The people of Crown Point Road probably have but one slim chance to stop a high-density development on a pristine swath of forestland that juts out into the South Slough Estuary near Charleston.

Their best hope for preserving the land may have come and gone during the past legislative session, when lawmakers killed a bill that would have lifted a prohibition on expanding the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. The reserve had the cash, and California timber magnate Hank Westbrook was willing to cut a deal - even though he stood to make considerably less money than by developing the property.

But it didn't happen. Now, Westbrook is asking the Coos County Board of Commissioners to rezone the land from mixed use forest to urban residential. If commissioners do so, and stand by a rule change they adopted in December, the land would be eligible for a recreational planned unit development.

Development conditions would require a sizeable chunk of open space to remain on the property, but also allow developers to add commercial and retail outlets to housing as dense as one home per 5,000 square feet.

Hot-pink signs line the dead-end Crown Point Road, spreading the word about the commission's upcoming hearing on the zone change. Opponents cling to the slim hope that Westbrook's offer to sell hasn't closed, and that lawmakers can be persuaded to lift the ban on expanding the reserve.

At stake, they argue, is at least the beauty and at most the environmental health of thousands of birds, fish and marine mammals that call the South Slough home.

"I understand that change is inevitable," says John Quinlan, a leader of neighborhood opposition. "But that doesn't mean it's without bounds."

But Quinlan's hopes grew dimmer when Westbrook, reached Sunday via cell phone, said he now has no intention of selling the property he's owned next to the slough since the mid-1970s.

"It's not on the table," Westbrook said. "They had their opportunity and declined to buy it. There's very little property in Coos Bay that can be developed. That nice chunk may be the future of Charleston."

Quinlan agrees that Charleston is ripe for growth, and that the town's center is appropriate for urban zoning. And he concedes that there's already some dense housing on the north and east sides of Westbrook's property.

But a retail and commercial development requiring access from a dead-end road makes no sense, he maintains. "You're talking about a huge impact on this community," he said.

And potentially, an impact on the home to thousands of birds and marine mammals.

Established in 1974, the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve is a partnership between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Oregon Division of State Lands. Its 4,700 acres encompass 600 acres of tidal marshes, mudflats and open water channels, connecting to the ocean through the Coos estuary, near Charleston.

It was the first of 26 biogeographic areas in the United States set aside for long-term research and education.

The reserve hosts researchers, provides education and works to improve the overall health of the bay. More than 80 percent of the tidal wetlands in the ecosystem have been lost to diking, draining, fill and development, according to the reserve's Web site. But the same statute that created the reserve also limits the expansion of its boundaries, said Ann Hanus, executive director of the state lands division.

Lawmakers were wary of allowing the reserve to swallow up private property and take it off the tax rolls or restrict the kinds of recreation and commerce that could take place in the area.

"It was a way to say, `This is where the South Slough will be, and that's that,' ' Hanus said.

Craig Young is director of the University of Oregon's nearby Office of Marine Biology, where students often conduct research in a mostly untouched salt marsh directly across the water from Indian Point. Young also sits on the South Slough Management Commission, which governs the slough. But his sentiments about development near the estuary's boundaries are personal. Young lives along Crown Point Road, which borders Westbrook's property.

His concerns are partly about waste: whether the Charleston sewer system can handle the capacity of what could be several hundred units of property; or whether a septic system, if built, could leak into the slough and affect nutrients in the estuary.

Indian Point lies just north of an important nesting area for thousands of waterbirds, and is also close to a sandbar where harbor seals "haul out" of the water to rest. The property is also home to archaeological sites on the ancestral territory of the Miluk band of the Coos tribe, whose main village was once at present-day Charleston.

But the larger issue, Young said, is how the estuary looks - an important aesthetic for the tourists, fishermen and researchers who have fallen in love with the pristine setting.

"As you drive across the bridge into Charleston, it looks like a wilderness (at Indian Point)," Young said. "If there are condominiums, trailer parks and commercial developments over there, and that's what you see from the bridge, it's just not going to be the same. It will look like Charleston is a city that's on its way to urban sprawl."

Westbrook says he's not sure what he'd build there yet, that he's more focused on the zoning issue at present. He said the plan would improve Charleston "tremendously." "It's a pretty low grade," Westbrook said. "We'd like to put something really nice there. I think Coos Bay wants it desperately."

Young and Quinlan are careful not to frame the issue as a battle. They realize Westbrook holds the cards, especially with the recent passage of Measure 37, which affords property owners the right to be compensated for regulations that devalue their property.

But at one point, Westbrook was a willing seller, Quinlan said. Neighbors hope to persuade newly elected state Sen. Joanne Verger to revive the legislation that died in committee when she was still a representative.

Verger's House Bill 2812 was actually the second attempt at allowing the slough to expand, a controversial notion among conservative Coos County residents because it removes private property from the tax rolls. Indeed, the lawmaker whose seat she won last November, Republican Ken Messerle, was the loudest voice in opposition to her bill.

What surprised Verger is the weak backing she got from the community - including, she said, the leadership of the South Slough. She seems no more willing than Westbrook to repeat the effort. "The South Slough is just a treasure, and it would be good for them to be able to manage those lands," Verger said. "But I see no reason at this point to bring the legislation back. I was standing out there all by myself in the wind, before. I wouldn't want to get myself in that position again."

But things may be different now, said George Tinker, a management commission member. The money the reserve would use to buy the property - bequeathed by the late Chalmer Gustafson - has grown to more than $2 million. It can only be used for property acquisition and there's little room to grow within the slough's current boundary. Tinker believes the reserve could buy property outside its borders without violating the statute that created it - negating the need for a change in law. But the unknown factor remains Westbrook.

"It was a missed opportunity" not to capitalize when they knew the Californian was willing to sell, Tinker said.

Quinlan and other residents are writing letters, and they say they've heard from several statewide environmental groups willing to get involved. On Feb. 1, county commissioners will consider the zone change request.

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

PUBLIC HEARING

County commissioners will consider California developer Hank Westbrook's zone change request for a 184-acre parcel of property that overlooks the South Slough Estuary near Charleston.

When/where: 6 p.m. on Feb. 1 at Coquille Indian Tribe Community Center, 591 Miluk Drive in Coos Bay

CAPTION(S):

Crown Point Road residents are spreading the word about the upcoming hearing on a proposed zone change to the South Slough Estuary. Chris Pietsch / The Register-Guard John Quinlan, a Crown Point Road resident, looks out over the South Slough near Charleston where he and some of his neighbors hope to prevent residential development.
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Title Annotation:Government; Coos County commissioners will consider a developer's proposed zone change
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 10, 2005
Words:1404
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