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Linn County will put the former Willamette Industries mill site up for public auction, it was decided Tuesday morning at a meeting of the Linn County Board of Commissioners.

Commissioners Roger Nyquist and John Lindsey agreed to the decision. Commissioner Will Tucker was not present.

The county has owned the 172-acre property since the end of 2010. It was foreclosed upon in lieu of some $500,000 in unpaid back taxes. Another 250 acres — known as the Knife River property — has already been deeded over to the city of Sweet Home.

County facilities manager Russ Williams told the commissioners he's been working with the city of Sweet Home concerning zoning and possible lot partitions. He added that he is also developing possible pricing levels upon which a minimum bid could be established.

Because the property was gained through tax foreclosure, it must first be offered at auction. If an acceptable bid is not received, the county will then have the option to accept private offers and may also sell the property in three pieces: a large industrial parcel and two smaller parcels.

Nyquist said he would like to proceed as quickly as possible with moving the property into private hands while the housing market's still hot. But, he said, developers may also have to consider a $3- to $7 million environmental clean-up bill in their auction bidding process. After the meeting, he estimated the county would need to get at least $1 million to break even on the amount of back taxes, plus staff time and projects on the site to break even for county taxpayers.

Williams said he's researching ways of reducing that to $1 million and is working with former owner Weyerhaeuser on other options.

“This is kind of like eating an elephant,” he said. “You take one bite at a time.”

Williams hopes to bring four possible pricing plans to the commissioners.

“We want to be careful that we don’t set the price so low that the buyer gets back into a tax foreclosure process,” he said.

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“Yes,’ Nyquist replied. “We want this back on the tax rolls.”

Since its acquisition, the property has been the subject of a $1 million clean-up of asbestos materials by the Environmental Protection Agency. It also suffered a major fire and has posed an attractive nuisance for squatters and trespassers.

Last year, a long-term environmental assessment was completed. In September, community members were told that despite contamination issues, there does not appear to be any ticking time bombs. The potential additional cancer risk at the site was deemed minimal, perhaps one additional case in 1 million. Contaminants appear to be stable and have not affected the South Santiam River.

The Willamette Industries (Weyerhaeuser) and Morse Bros. properties were acquired by Western States Land Reliance Trust over several years. Originally, the trust planned to create a large subdivision of high-end homes. Those plans were later changed to more modest homes, but none ever were built.

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Contact Linn County reporter Alex Paul at 541-812-6114.

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