Does Corvallis need additional parkland and open space?

The question again arises in the wake of a proposal - still at the very earliest stages - to buy and preserve as wild a 95-acre parcel called Witham Oaks, situated north of Harrison Boulevard and west of Witham Hill Drive.

But it's the wrong question to ask: It's sort of along the lines of "Do we have enough fun?" or "Could we stand to be a little happier?"

Here's a better question to ask as we begin the discussion about Witham Oaks: Can we afford it? And here's one that might be even more to the point: Even if private fundraising comes up with enough cash to buy the land, can we afford to maintain it?

The property in question has been at the heart of controversy in Corvallis for a quarter of a century. At one time widely known as the Frager property, voters defeated seven annexation attempts before a 2004 measure was approved to bring the land into the city limits for residential development.

Legend Homes, which was developing the property, announced plans to build a 221-unit subdivision. Legend also said it would donate a third of the property to the city as a natural area.

But then Legend went into bankruptcy protection as the homebuilding business tanked nationally. The land is scheduled to be sold in a foreclosure proceeding on Jan. 29.

So a group called Friends of Witham Oaks is working, in a hurry, to try to strike a deal to buy the property; the idea is to donate it to the city for preservation. For its part, the city was ready to accept a donation of 37 acres from Legend - but taking the whole property is another question entirely.

We need to add more questions to the discussion: Is there a role for Witham Oaks in the community's struggle to find places to build affordable housing? How might Oregon State University's plans to bring thousands of additional students and faculty members tie into plans for Witham Oaks? Would other areas be more worthy of investment of open-space funding? Is it best to keep as open space a site long listed for residential development in the city's comprehensive land-use plans? To what extent does Hewlett-Packard's protest of its property-tax bill - a decision that puts $1 million or so of tax revenue at risk - affect the landscape?

Don't misunderstand: We're not saying, at this point, that we should abandon plans to try to preserve the Witham Oaks property. But we all need to clearly understand that what's at stake could well be much more than one 95-acre parcel.

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