Metro proposes levy extension for parks and natural areas

Measure 26-178 is on the Nov. 8 ballot in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties

Metro Council president Tom Hughes, September 2013 (KOIN 6 News)
Metro Council president Tom Hughes, September 2013 (KOIN 6 News)

PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Voter extension of a Metro tax levy would produce more money to improve regional parks, restore natural areas, and provide small grants for trail work and community education.

Measure 26-178 is on the Nov. 8 ballot in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties. It would extend Metro’s current levy of 9.6 cents per $1,000 of assessed (taxable) value from its scheduled expiration in 2018 to 2023.

The current levy, which voters approved in 2013, generates about $10 million annually. Based on projected growth in property values, collections would increase gradually to about $14 million by 2023.

Given the forecast growth in the population of the Portland area, Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette said at a recent meeting with the Portland Tribune editorial board, “it’s a bargain by most measures.”

Based on a house with a taxable value of $200,000, the annual tax is about $20.

Council President Tom Hughes said unlike other issues, this one appears to draw a regional consensus.

“It brings people together in a way that almost no other issue in this area does,” Hughes said. “There is no big group of people saying we should not preserve this habitat or have clean water.”

Counting the current levy and bond issues approved in 1995 ($136 million) and 2006 ($227 million), Metro has directed around $400 million to buy land, restore watersheds and habitats, make improvements and provide grants to community organizations.

Money from the levy cannot be used for land purchases.

Metro oversees a variety of lands, including the Blue Lake and Oxbow regional parks once operated by Multnomah County, and the Chinook Landing Marine Park on the Columbia River.

Future work

Metro also is using bond money for its share of the proposed Riverwalk at Willamette Falls in Oregon City.

“The Willamette River is the most important habitat in our region,” Collette said. “We may prioritize some of the levy dollars for it, but we have not budgeted for it yet.”

Hughes said some levy money may go toward improving access to the Tualatin River, which the council has endorsed for designation as a national river trail.

In the past year, the Metro Council has approved an overall parks and nature plan, plus master plans for Newell Creek Canyon in Oregon City and the North Tualatin Mountains northwest of Portland’s Forest Park.

A master plan is in the works for Chehalem Ridge Nature Park, a 1,200-acre area south of Cornelius and Forest Grove. That plan is likely to come before the council next year.

If it follows the pattern set for Newell Creek Canyon and the North Tualatin Mountains, the Chehalem Ridge master plan will combine protection for watersheds with recreational opportunities for communities underserved by parks.

Several streams in the area flow into the Tualatin River, the main source of water for Washington County.

“They have great potential for protecting water quality,” said Hughes, a former mayor of Hillsboro. “But there is so much property there that it would be hard not to provide some access for the public.”

The Portland Tribune is a KOIN 6 Media partner.

Previous master plans sought similar balances. With a couple of exceptions, the plans adopted by the council drew support from neighbors, conservation and user groups.

“In the process of developing these plans, we have brought together disparate groups of people who sometimes do not get along,” Hughes said.

“We sit them down around a table and get some of these things knocked out so that at the end, you have mountain bikers and the Friends of Forest Park advocating for the final plan they have done,” he said in a specific reference to the North Tualatin Mountains plan.

Public access

Although most of the written arguments filed were in favor of Measure 26-178, a dissenting statement was offered by Cascade Policy Institute, a free-market think tank whose president testified against the measure when the council put it on the ballot.

The statement refers to the ban on dogs in Metro’s nature parks, and that some of that acreage is also off-limits to the public.

“Since 1995, Metro has spent hundreds of millions of tax dollars buying up large tracts of lands far from where most people live. The Metro Council doesn’t want you to use most of these lands, but they do want you to pay for them. This is an elitist conception of nature.”

But Hughes and Collette said that in the master plans for Newell Creek Canyon and the North Tualatin Mountains, some of the lands will be open to public access on shared-use trails.

“We want to encourage people to come into those areas because they are rare and we want people to see them,” Collette said.

“When you have the trail, you do not have the homeless camps as much because it’s easier to have eyes on the trail,” she said in specific reference to Newell Creek Canyon.

Metro does not focus on “active recreation,” such as ball fields, which usually are provided by cities and park districts.

Grants included

Collette also said that while public attention is focused on the regional parks and nature areas, Metro’s levy also provides money for small grants to community organizations that do trail work and educate people about nature.

The council just approved $205,000 in Nature in Neighborhoods grants to eight organizations.

The council has emphasized grants that enable minority youths and low-income families to learn more the natural environment outside cities.

“We need them to become our future stewards of nature,” Collette said.

“Minorities are becoming the majority, and they will inherit our communities and be the elected leaders who protect the environment and habitats. If we want them to have the same values we have — to protect the Oregon we love — they have to have a reason to. The only way they experience it is get them out on their own.”