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Eugene Weekly : News : 10.07.10

Willamette Vision

Inspired fundraising or toothless paper? 

By Alan Pittman

A new plan for the Willamette River through Eugene/Springfield could mean an uninterrupted broad band of lush riparian forests and wetlands teaming with wildlife viewable from bike paths and stretching from Mount Pisgah to Armitage Park. Or not.

The Willamette River Open Space Vision and Action Plan now under final approval by local governments “is conceptual and is not intended to propose new regulations or mandates. It instead relies on voluntary action and collaboration for implementation.”

The vision gained the unanimous endorsement of the Eugene City Council in July only after anti-regulatory conservatives were assured it was entirely toothless. Councilor Mike Clark asked if the plan would have any impact on riverfront property owners or city land use decisions. 

“Not in this plan, no,” city attorney Emily Jerome replied. “It doesn’t bind you to any particular position in the future.”  

“The key point is the voluntary landowner participation,” said Councilor George Poling.

So what is the point of the plan the Lane Council of Governments (LCOG) spent a year working on, involving dozens of city staff and hundreds of citizens?

City planner Neil Bjorklund told the council that the 38-page document helped coordinate government efforts and will help in fundraising from the federal government or foundations. “It’s a very powerful statement to a funder to see this kind of plan.” 

There’s evidence that such funding can get landowners to do a lot. Wildish recently sold 1,300 acres of its gravel pit land near Mount Pisgah for $23 million in federal habitat restoration funding. The city also succeeded in preserving 3,000 acres of wetlands in west Eugene with a plan, a partnership and lots of federal fundraising.

But there’s a lot of work to do if the paper vision is to become reality. From a satellite, it looks like someone dropped an atomic bomb on the confluence of the Willamette and McKenzie rivers in north Eugene. Gravel pits have scalped the area of all vegetation, replacing habitat with vast muddy craters often separated by only a narrow strip of rubble riprap from the rivers.

Where the river flows through the center of the city, EWEB and the UO’s Riverfront Research Park have proposed projects that maximize development and minimize parkland with garages, office and condo towers and parking lots built right up to the minimum 100-foot river setback required by Eugene regulations.

In Glenwood the riverfront is already developed with Dumpsters and trucks parked at the top of the bank. A redevelopment plan has envisioned a bike path and narrow setback strip, but no new large areas of parkland.

The vision says acquiring the confluence land for parks and habitat could take “several decades” until the gravel pit companies are done mining. It does say the county should “consider” transferring gravel pit zoning away from the ecologically valuable river.  

The vision doesn’t mention the possibility of condemning the land for parks, as governments do frequently for highways. Nor does it mention other potentially very effective non-regulatory approaches such as using the city’s strong buying power with a new city policy requiring the purchase of only sustainably harvested “green gravel.”

The vision also doesn’t talk about the city using its authority to approve conditional use and development plans for the EWEB and UO land to increase habitat protection and parkland. The cities and county also don’t have to approve urban growth boundary expansions and rural riverfront development, but the vision doesn’t mention that either.

The LCOG plan does call for stricter controls on pooping duck and geese populations and enforcement of existing laws against homeless sleeping in parks. There’s nothing about enforcing existing clean water laws against developers or gravel pits.

So when will locals actually see the lush riparian vision in the Willamette plan? They may die first. After the Eugene Council unanimously endorsed the toothless plan, LCOG planner Jeff Krueger offered, “Field trip in 30 years. We’ll see you then.”

Mayor Kitty Piercy replied, “We want one sooner, please."