In the November 2000 election Corvallis voters approved an $8 million open space and parks acquisition bond by a 65% to 35% margin.
Measure 02-94 added five properties to the Parks and Recreation Department: Caldwell Natural Area, the Frager property (which became the Witham Hill Natural Area), Herbert Farm, Owens Farm and a Timberhill-area parcel that became the Timberhill Natural Area.
The 470 acres include a wide range of landscapes and public use possibilities. The plots were intentionally chosen to cover as wide a swath of city geography as possible. The properties also offer a glimpse into the challenges that Corvallis — or any municipal entity — faces in terms of developing park land once it is acquired.
Timberhill Natural Area and Witham Hill Natural Area came into the system virtually user-ready, with user-developed trail systems already in place. Owens Farm has fabulous historical assets, but its restoration will be expensive and a serious test for the department.
Caldwell and Herbert also offer strong promise, with the good news being that funding already is in place for a pedestrian bridge that would link the Marys River Natural Area and its boardwalk to Caldwell across the river.
Herbert is easily the largest parcel at 221 acres. Restoration work has gone on quietly since 2012 in the park, which includes the confluence of the Marys River and Muddy Creek and features riparian, upland prairie, wet prairie and oak woodlands features.
“Given the fact that these natural areas were purposefully added to the city’s portfolio to ensure open space in perpetuity it is reasonable to expect development of the nearly 500 acres of land to occur over many decades,” said Meredith Petit, director of Parks and Recreation. “These lands are largely preserved for the purposes of limited development, enhancing habitat preservation effort and measured access to the natural environment.
“The community’s significant financial investment in these properties 20 years ago was an investment to preserve and enjoy the benefits of open space for multiple generations to come.”
The 2000 election success followed the defeat of a similar measure in 1995. Long-time parks advocate Tony Howell was on the Corvallis City Council during both campaigns.
“The 1995 levy was designed to generate funds over time that could respond to purchase opportunities that were in line with goals for open space acquisition that emerged from a robust public process,” Howell said. “It lost because voters wanted specifically identified properties, willing sellers, and assurance that acquisition would not block development. The 2000 bond identified five properties with willing sellers that had high open space values for critical habitat, historic and scenic values, and future open space recreational opportunities.”
In the intervening 20 years the city has completely paid off the bond and has parlayed the 25 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value that taxpayers were charged into the extension of a separate levy that is helping pay for maintenance on the properties acquired in 2000 as well as other Parks and Recreation operations such as the Majestic Theatre and Osborn Aquatic Center.
Should the city have been more successful at developing the properties in that 20-year interval? Howell says no.
“The value of open space is not defined by how much human use an area receives,” he said. “We all benefit from living in a community that can live in concert with the remnants of the natural systems that preceded us, and that continue to sustain and inspire us if we provide them with adequate protection.”
Kent Daniels, a former councilor and Benton County commissioner, expressed concerns that “two of the natural areas, Herbert and Caldwell, have had no real public access at all since 2000. Herbert one can visit by arranging to do so with Parks & Rec, but Caldwell has no public access at all. I would really like the city to allow open access to Herbert. Owens Farm also has no real open access and no trails at all.”
Daniels added that “the goal with purchasing these areas was to permanently set aside/reserve them as non-developed natural/open spaces. And that alone was worth any cost involved, whether enough funds have been invested or not over the years.”
For Phil Hays, a long-time member of the city’s Parks, Natural Areas and Recreation Advisory Board, one of the challenges is figuring out the best way to manage “parks” and “natural areas.”
“It is disappointing that (the city) hasn't done more with the natural areas, maybe,” Hays said. “Putting a natural area in the city parks system is a death sentence for anything natural. Natural areas aren't big budget capital improvements or trendy ‘programs’ so they are ignored.”
In recent years the Parks and Recreation Department, under the leadership of then-Director Karen Emery (she retired at the end of October) and parks planner Jackie Rochefort, has upgraded dozens of facilities in the city system, including a just-completed remodel and expansion of the Corvallis Community Center. Also in place are new amenities at MLK Jr. Park, Starker Arts Park, Cloverland Park, Franklin Square Park, Arnold Park, Lilly Park, Peanut Park, Crystal Lake, Tunison Park, the Kendall Natural Area and the Marys River Natural Area.
The department has used a wide array of funding mechanisms, including grants, systems development charges (SDCs) and donations from groups such as Friends of Corvallis Parks and Recreation to put the projects together.
One of the biggest successes, the restoration of the boardwalk at the Marys River Natural Area, will be linked with bond acquisition Caldwell Natural Area via a pedestrian bridge in a $650,000 project to be completed next year. And the Marys River work also serves as Exhibit A for the challenges the department often faces.
The boardwalk at the natural area south of Philomath Boulevard off of Southwest Brooklane Drive was wiped out in the winter of 2011-12 by floodwaters from the nearby Marys River.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency kicked in more than $200,000 in funds, but the city had to match the funds and find other donations in a complicated project that swelled to a final cost of $500,000. Neighbors chipped in $12,000.
The department faced procedural hurdles along the way. Both city and Benton County properties were involved and there were endangered species and tribal issues to review. The new boardwalk reopened in September 2017.
Recognizing the difficulty of the process, the Oregon Recreation and Park Association awarded a statewide parks planning honor to Rochefort.
Another challenge for the Parks and Recreation Department is to manage and maintain what it already has.
In the fall of 2015 Hays, Daniels and Central Park Neighborhood Association President Courtney Cloyd took the Gazette-Times on a tour of city park properties that the advocates said were in need of maintenance.
One of the three stops was the Witham Hill Natural Area, one of the five 2000 bond acquisition sites. The advocates complained of a lack of trail maintenance and the problem of the native oak trees being overwhelmed by Douglas firs.
Daniels says the problems continue.
“I think myself and other supporters of parks and natural areas have been and remain disappointed that the city has not invested more in the consistent care and maintenance of our parks and (especially) the natural areas,” Daniels said. “Benton County, OSU Forestry, and the Greenbelt Land Trust have done a far better job at this than has the city of Corvallis.”
In 2019 the city passed Measure 02-123, which expanded a previously approved five-year local option property tax levy at 82 cents per $1,000 of assessed value to $1.07 per $1,000. That extra 25 cents used to be the charge for the expiring open space bond. Included in the new levy was $250,000 per year for parks maintenance.
“The levy funds three new park maintenance positions,” said Jude Geist, parks division manager. “One of those positions is a parks operations specialist that is assigned half time to urban forestry and half time to natural areas. The time that this position spends on natural areas is dedicated to all natural areas, not just the five acquired through the bond.
“This position has been involved in the ongoing management and coordination with our partners at Owens Farm Natural Area and Herbert Farm Natural Area, including the restoration of the final third of the agricultural lands to upland and wetland prairie at Herbert Farm.”
Petit and Rochefort took the Gazette-Times on a 150-minute tour of four of the five bond acquisition sites on Nov. 20. The exception was Caldwell because of its tricky access issues.
We climb up the path from the small parking lot just west of Highway 99. The bulk of the property consists of a working grass seed farm.
Rochefort notes that the family patriarch Tom Owens still lived in the 1880s-era house until about seven years ago (he died in 2015).
Rochefort and Scott Taylor, a Corvallis-area contractor who has worked with Rochefort and the department on numerous parks upgrades, cleaned out the house. Taylor also repaired the roof and helped stabilize the 1850s-era barn.
Many of the items in the house have been donated to the Benton County Historical Museum.
Also on the property are some storage buildings, a pump house, a chicken coop and the early 20th century Sunnyside Schoolhouse, which was moved to the property in 2014.
“The most-pressing issue here is to make everything safe,” said Rochefort. Parks & Rec also is hoping the property, which already is on the Benton County historic registry, will be added to the national one.
Such an addition would pave the way for grant opportunities, Rochefort said.
Parks & Rec also is working with Samaritan Health Services and the Greenbelt Land Trust, which own adjacent properties, on a trail system.
Petit said that the department will work on getting public access to the site first and that its educational opportunities “are a much longer term project.”
Rochefort estimated about five years for the trail system and 10 years for the work on the building.
“I just love this property,” she said. “There is so much great potential here.”
The oak savanna natural area at the end of 29th Street has a trail system that links to the one at Chip Ross Natural Area as well as the unofficial paths that crisscross through the private property to the south.
Eventually, the private land will be developed and 29th Street will be extended. The extension will occur on city and private land, with the park property remaining undisturbed. Rochefort said Parks & Rec hopes to add a parking lot because the street parking spots can fill up on crowded days.
“This is an incredibly popular property,” she said.
And all you have to do is park your car … and start walking.
This natural area has assumed a new visibility since Circle Boulevard has been extended from Witham Hill Drive to Harrison Boulevard as part of the Domain Corvallis apartment project.
Far more people pass by the site’s small parking lot than before, and the lot was full on the Friday afternoon we visited. Rochefort and Petit also were cheered that a visitor had parked a bike at the rack before proceeding up the trails.
Future plans include trail work and the oak and fir balancing challenge that Hays and Daniels emphasized during the 2015 tour.
“We’re going to try not to remove the significant firs, just the ones crowding out the oaks,” Rochefort said.
The mixed woodland forest extends south into the Domain property, with the possibility of future cooperative links between the city and the property owner.
The parcel has gone through multiple owners, and Rochefort said that the city has had discussions with all of them about open space linkups or land donations. Nothing has been finalized, Rochefort said, adding that the city would only accept a land donation if the property owner would maintain it.
No sign yet exists that advises travelers on Highway 99W that the park is there at the end of Herbert Avenue. The road is not paved and floods seasonally. But about two miles off the highway you arrive at a parking lot … and some amazing sights.
Marys Peak looks close enough to touch, and amid the quickly fading autumn daylight it is blanketed with a golden glow.
There is a gate and a small kiosk. Beyond the gate is an old farm road … and the rest is left to your imagination. A lark flies by as well as two flights of geese as we discuss the parcel.
The park includes the confluence of the Marys River and Muddy Creek and “that’s where you have such incredible biological diversity,” Rochefort said. “This property is so rich in that way. The hiking in the spring with all of the wildflowers is magnificent.”
The low-lying area is subject to flooding that can limit access even when Parks & Rec puts together a more defined trail system.
“It’s really off the beaten path,” Rochefort said, “but once people know about it, they keep coming.”
In addition to the trail work the city is winding up a series of restoration projects that started in 2012. The focus is on preserving the historic riparian, upland prairie, wet prairie and oak woodlands sections of the acreage.
The goal, Rochefort said, is for the property “to remain a natural area for environmental stewardship.”
But she added that it could also be used for outdoor education and camps.