Knife River gate.JPG (copy)

Trespassers are warned to stay out of the former Knife River rock quarry in Sweet Home that is now owned by Linn County. The commissioners this week decided to transfer the property to the city of Sweet Home; the deal is expected to close later this year.

Alex Paul, Democrat-Herald

The action by the Linn County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday took only about 15 minutes, but it represents a big step forward in a story that's been percolating for years now.

The commissioners this week voted to approve the transfer of the former Knife River quarry property to the city of Sweet Home. The 220-acre parcel was acquired by Linn County in December 2010, when the county foreclosed on more than 400 acres owned by the Western States Land Reliance Trust; the trust owed more than $500,000 in property taxes. 

Since then, progress on this matter has been sluggish at times — to the point at which the commissioners occasionally had to prod Sweet Home officials into action.

But the commissioners wasted little time on Tuesday morning after a public hearing on the question attracted no opposition.

Now, community leaders in Sweet Home have a golden opportunity to develop something that could serve their city (and all of Linn County) for many years to come. 

The 220-acre parcel is a piece of prime real estate, sitting on the banks of the Santiam River. For years, the site provided rock for Morse Bros. operations before it was acquired by Knife River and then by the trust, which had plans to build high-end homes. When those plans collapsed, the county ended up owning the property.

The remaining 180-acre parcel, on the western side of the Knife River property, was not part of this week's transaction. It's the location of the former Willamette Industries mill; environmental studies continue on that site.

By contrast, the Knife River property had relatively few environmental issues that required remediation, and those have been dealt with. 

Originally, the plan was to donate the 220-acre site to the Sweet Home Economic Development Group to be developed as the new home of the Oregon Jamboree country music festival. But such a move carried with it the possibility that the Economic Development Group would have been saddled with a hefty property tax bill, so it made more sense to transfer ownership to the city.

State regulations require the city to develop at least some of the property as a park, which seems wise. A quick look across the mid-valley offers plenty of examples of how a properly developed riverfront park can become the heart of a community. Commissioner Will Tucker liked the sound of that at Tuesday's meeting, when he talked about how a city park would best serve the community. 

The city is kicking around some additional plans as well for the property: Plans are to develop a mix of recreational opportunities, commercial businesses and residential housing on the site. While we like the sound of that, the trick will be to find the right balance between parkland and those other uses.

And who knows what else could fit into the mix? This is a time to dream big — and to invite the rest of the community to dream along as well. 

This parcel represents a golden opportunity for the community — and, despite our earlier grousing about the occasionally sluggish pace of the story to date — Sweet Home community leaders and citizens need to take their time now to make sure they're making smart decisions about the future of the property.

City leaders also need to ensure that the process of deciding what to do with this valuable property is as open and inclusive as possible.

Done properly, this could give a needed economic boost to Sweet Home and could end creating a location that becomes a community treasure. This is a chance to help create something that could make a difference in the life of Sweet Home and Linn County for generations to come. Opportunities like this don't come around every day, and that's all the more reason to be sure we don't waste this one. (mm)

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