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After battling for years to keep the south slope of Witham Hill from being developed, residents of the area thought they had lost in 2004 when an annexation measure passed and Legend Homes announced plans to build a 221-unit subdivision called Witham Oaks.

Now they might get another bite at the acorn.

Legend, battered by the housing slump, is in bankruptcy court, and the folks who want to keep the area wild see an opportunity to preserve it.

A group of people calling themselves the Friends of Witham Oaks have banded together to try to buy the 95-acre parcel, which is scheduled to be sold in a foreclosure proceeding on Jan. 29.

"The challenge," said Sherri Johnson, a member of the group, "is none of us are wealthy."

Louise Marquering, a longtime neighborhood resident who helped organize the Friends of Witham Oaks, said the group is seeking donations to buy the property when it goes up for auction.

"We are hoping to raise money to purchase the Witham Oaks property and donate it to the city of Corvallis to be managed as a natural area," Marquering said in an e-mail to the newspaper.

Marquering said the group aims to raise about $2 million. But it's not clear whether that would be enough. According to a foreclosure notice filed by US Bank, Legend still owes more than $5 million on loans secured by the Witham Oaks property.

Mike Goodrich, who manages Legend's Corvallis developments, said he didn't know how the bankruptcy court might deal with that debt, but he did say the company has no intention of trying to redeem Witham Oaks from foreclosure.

"We notified the court we intended to abandon that property as part of our reorganization," Goodrich said. "The reorganized Legend Homes won't have the capacity to take on a project the size of Witham Oaks."

Legend hopes to emerge from bankruptcy protection in the next 30 to 60 days. When it does, it will focus on other projects, such as completing the Willamette Landing development in south Corvallis, Goodrich said. It would be up to the bankruptcy attorneys and US Bank to determine how to dispose of Witham Oaks.

"It's just a gorgeous piece of property," Goodrich said. "We argued about it for many years. But, all arguments aside, I hope whoever buys it can do something nice with it."

Annexation battles

The struggle over the Witham Oaks parcel, situated north of Harrison Boulevard and west of Witham Hill Drive, goes back more than 20 years, including an annexation battle in the 1990s when it was known as the Frager property. Seven annexation attempts were defeated at the polls before Corvallis voters narrowly approved the 2004 measure bringing the land into the city limits for residential development.

Legend Homes sweetened the deal by agreeing to donate a third of the property to the city as a natural area, then went into bankruptcy protection before the bulldozers went to work on the rest. Now the Friends of Witham Oaks say they see a chance to preserve the entire parcel in an undeveloped state.

"The area has nice potential for restoration," said Johnson, who enjoys walking on the paved path that cuts through the area between Circle and Harrison boulevards. "It has old oaks (and) it has quite a bit of wetlands on the lower part."

Karen Emery, director of the Corvallis Parks and Recreation Department, said she's had some preliminary exchanges via e-mail with the group, but nothing formal.

"We'd have to have a discussion at a higher level than Parks and Recreation" before committing to accepting the full 95 acres, she said. The department was poised to accept a donation from Legend Homes of 37 acres adjoining the city's 35-acre Witham Natural Area, Emery said, but that deal is in limbo because of the bankruptcy proceedings.

For now, Emery said, the department is "waiting to see what happens" with the Friends of Witham Oaks' fundraising efforts.

To drum up public support for the cause, the group has scheduled a forum on open space issues at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the downtown library. Steve Gordon, a retired planner with the Lane Council of Governments, will present "Collaborating About Green Space." His talk will focus on strategies for preserving open spaces that have worked in other communities. There also will be a panel discussion titled "Wild and Open Spaces in Corvallis." Speakers will include Marquering, Cary Stephens of the Greenbelt Land Trust, Charles Goodrich of the Spring Creek Project, Carolyn Menke of the Institute for Applied Ecology and David Phillips of the Corvallis Parks and Recreation Department.

The Friends of Witham Oaks can be contacted by

e-mail at withamoaks@com

cast.net. The group also is preparing to launch a Web site at www.withamoaks.org.

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