11th-hour ask nearly derails land deal

Camas officials OK new land-use restrictions on Green Mountain donation

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An illustration shows the Green Mountain land parcels included the land purchase and donation plan recently approved by Camas city councilors. The city has received 60 acres (outlined in yellow) as a donation and will purchase 55 acres for $3.8 million (outlined in red) in October. (Contributed illustration courtesy of city of Camas)

Camas City Council members have agreed to move forward with a land deal that will add 115 acres of undeveloped Green Mountain land to the city’s inventory despite an 11th-hour ask that threatened to derail negotiations.

City councilors met with Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell, city attorney Shawn MacPherson and Camas Public Works Director Steve Wall in a special Zoom session on Dec. 30 to discuss a last-minute addition that will limit more than half of the 115 acres to conservation uses only.

The land deal approved by city councilors on Dec. 7, 2020, involves two separate parcels: a 60-acre piece of land known as Parcel 1 being donated to the city, with a closing date of Dec. 31, 2020, and a 55-acre plot of land known as Parcel 2, which city leaders have agreed to purchase for $3.8 million, with a closing date of Oct. 31, 2021.

Wall said Dec. 30 that city staff had been working with the land donors/sellers to ensure a smooth transition of the donated parcel by the end of 2020, but had run into a snag at the very last minute. Instead of donating the land outright to the city, the owners wanted to maximize their charitable contribution and attach language known as a “restrictive covenant” to the land donation, which will permanently limit the 60-acre Parcel 1’s uses and require the city to use the donated land only for conservation purposes.

The uses are defined under federal code, Wall told city councilors on Dec. 30, with allowed uses including outdoor recreation, the preservation of open spaces and protection of natural habitats.

“The good part is that the regulations do allow for the majority of things we’ve talked about (for the land),” Wall told city councilors on Dec. 30, mentioning the city’s desire to build recreation trails and preserve open spaces on the Green Mountain land.

City councilors had discussed the possibility of placing a fire station on the Green Mountain land in the future, but Wall said Dec. 30 that the covenant would not allow for a fire station to be built on the donated 60-acre site. Wall said city leaders could choose to build the fire station on the adjacent 55-acre Parcel 2, which the city agreed to purchase for $3.8 million in order to accept the donated 60 acres, but cautioned that Parcel 2 is higher on Green Mountain and may not be suitable for a fire station.

“It (may be) difficult to construct anything on (the) Parcel 2 area,” Wall said. “It is steep and more rocky. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but it’s something we would have to look at in great detail.”

Wall added that the city does have other land options in the Green Mountain area for the future fire station.

The councilors — with the exception of Councilman Steve Hogan, who was absent — had two options, Wall said Dec. 30. They could accept the restrictive covenant and move forward with the Dec. 31 donation closing date, or they could ask staff to go back to the land owners and say the city wanted to stick with the original purchase and sale agreement city leaders approved on Dec. 7.

MacPherson cautioned, however, that the land owners would likely not agree to return to the standard agreement, as they needed the restrictive covenant in order to get the most out of their charitable donation to the city.

“To be eligible for the (tax) deduction , the conservation purpose must be protected in perpetuity,” MacPherson explained.

The covenant prohibits any future exchange or transfer of the land without ensuring the new owner also uses the land for conservation purposes, MacPherson added. “They don’t want you flipping the property to a developer is the long and short of it,” he said.

Councilman Don Chaney said he has heard many positive comments from community members since the Council voted to accept the 115-acre land donation-purchase agreement in early December, but worried the new covenant would mean the city was spending public funds “on property that may not be accessible.”

Chaney asked Wall to describe some of the uses that would still be allowed on the donated 60-acre parcel.

“If you think about parks and open space uses, those would be allowed,” Wall answered. “Scenic viewpoints … trails, picnicking, hiking, general access for recreational purposes in general (would be allowed).”

“That gives me comfort and, hopefully, gives the public comfort that we’re not totally restricted in doing anything (on the land),” Chaney said.

McDonnell said he was frustrated by the 11th-hour timing of the restrictive covenant, but that he still believed the agreement was in the city’s best interests.

“Looking at it, if this was presented to us initially, I think we still would have had the same recommendations,” the mayor told city councilors on Dec. 30. “But I share the frustration with the last-minute changes.”

Councilwoman Ellen Burton said she felt comfortable agreeing to the restrictive covenant after hearing from Wall and MacPherson.

“I feel comfortable that, even with this last-minute change, it’s consistent with the intent of creating additional open space that the public can use and benefit from,” Burton said.