Witham Oaks
From left John Foster, Elinor Griffiths, Martha Fraundorf, Julie Gibson, Logan Norris and Louise Marquering areÊmembers of the Friends of Witham Oaks, they are trying to raise money to buy the 95-acre property for preservation as open space. (ANDY CRIPE | Gazette-Times)

Buoyed by public support for their plan to preserve a wooded hillside in northwest Corvallis, the Friends of Witham Oaks have launched an appeal for financial backing to make it happen.

“We’re really kicking off the fundraising thing now,” said Louise Marquering, one of the organizers of the group. “We already have several thousand dollars. We’re hoping to make a big push in the next week or so.”

The group’s goal is to purchase a 95-acre parcel of land located north of Harrison Boulevard and west of Witham Hill Drive and donate it to the city for preservation as open space.

Legend Homes had planned to build a 221-unit subdivision on the site but abandoned the property this year as part of a Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. U.S. Bank foreclosed on the property and plans to sell it at auction on Jan. 29.

The price tag is daunting — Legend still owes more than $5 million in loans — but the Friends of Witham Oaks are hoping to take advantage of the same down real estate market that forced the developer into bankruptcy court. If the property fails to sell at auction, they reason, they may be able to negotiate a lower price.

“There’s foreclosures going on all over the country on big developments like this,” Marquering said. “Who knows who’d want to buy this property?”

So far the group has taken in about $11,000 in contributions, Marquering said, but it hopes to raise at least $2 million by the auction date to give it some bargaining power.

Racing to beat the Jan. 29 deadline, the Friends of Witham Oaks have put together a Web site (www.withamoaks.org), set up bank accounts and obtained nonprofit status to make donations tax-deductible.

Marquering said she’s encouraged by the support she’s received since the plan was aired at a public forum Nov. 10. She estimated 60 people turned out for that meeting and 20 attended a follow-up strategy session last week.

“I’m just amazed at how many people from all parts of town have stepped in,” she said.

The group has also approached several conservation organizations for help, including the Greenbelt Land Trust, the Trust for Public Land and the Nature Conservancy. While all have been supportive, so far none has committed any financial backing.

Cary Stephens, who chairs the Greenbelt board of directors, called the Witham Oaks property an attractive candidate for preservation but said the price tag may put it out of reach.

“It meets our habitat and open space criteria, but the cost is a major constraint,” Stephens said. “Therefore Greenbelt itself is not going to pursue fundraising for this property.”

Instead, Greenbelt is providing the Friends of Witham Oaks with contacts to potential funding agencies so the group can approach those sources directly.

In the meantime, there could be other bidders for the property.

Ken Gibb, head of the Corvallis Community Development Department, said the land use approvals for Legend Homes’ development plans are still valid until next summer.

“The approval goes with the land, not with the owner,” Gibb said. “If someone came in and bought the land tomorrow, they would be able to go forward with what’s been approved already.”

And there’s yet another wrinkle that could eventually come into play. The plan for the subdivision called for Legend to extend Circle Boulevard through the property to Harrison, something that has long been part of the city’s transportation plan.

Gibb said the city would retain right-of-way for the road no matter what happens to the Witham Oaks property, although that’s probably a moot point if the land isn’t developed.

“Without a developer going in,” he said, “there would have to be some other mechanism for paying for that.”

Bennett Hall can be reached at 758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net.

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Special Projects Editor

Special Projects Editor, Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald

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