Residents of Cannon Beach may have a sense of déjà vu all over again as they read the headline of the local landowner wanting to bring an RV park to 17.6-acre parcel of forested land across from Arcadia Beach. The owner, James Smejkal, considers the property well-suited for his purpose, mostly because it is one of the only types of development allowed with the land’s current zoning.
“Because of the high volume of campers that visit the Coast in the summer, I don’t think there will be a problem,” Smejkal said in August. “Planners designated it for park use because they saw it as a need.”
Smejkal said he intends the project to be designed like another RV park he developed in Wallowa County, which he described as “upscale.”
Opponents say the installation of roads, water and septic systems in the steeply sloped area would eliminate the area’s open space and jeopardize the health of the environment.
A long-ago land swap
How pristine park land across from the beach came to be a hot commodity for a developer is another story.
It all began as a land swap in 2002.
In the course of negotiations to acquire the new Stub Stewart State Park near Vernonia, landowner Smejkal pursued a trade with the Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department.
When Smejkal gave the department 113 acres in Columbia County valued at $157,000, and 30 acres in Wallowa County valued at $6,000 in exchange for the property in 2002, no one raised any eyebrows. Oregon State Parks ultimately gave roughly 20 acres east of Highway 101 — 90 percent of Arcadia State Park to Smejkal. Only the parking lot at Arcadia was retained in state ownership.
It was on the east side of the highway, wasn’t providing beach access and there were no plans to develop it ever for recreation, Chris Havel, associate director of the Parks and Recreation Department, said in 2009.
“It wasn’t playing a significant role,” Havel said at the time. “So it was offered in trade.”
Residents responded by attending public meetings in protest. They said they hadn’t received any notice of the 2002 transaction.
“I still feel that land trade was inappropriate,” former Cannon Beach Mayor Mike Morgan said this month. “The state was scrambling to put together as I recall that Stub Stewart State Park. This guy (Smejkal) happened to have some property adjacent to it and they just did a private kind of a deal, with no public process. Our entire council was pretty outraged that they would just trade away something without any kind of public hearing or notice to anybody.”
In 2002, the Parks and Recreation Department considered the 17.5-acre property in terms of its contribution to the mission of state parks, Havel said this month.
“This property — on the east side of the highway with no real prospects for public recreation — wasn’t a strong contributor to the mission, which can be boiled down to providing great recreation experiences by protecting special places in a sustainable way,” he said.
In 2009, Smejkal proposed a zone change that would have allowed him to build eight homes on the property.
But the county denied his request, citing the need to protect the habitat of the marbled murrelet, a threatened seabird.
After his zoning application was rejected, the owner’s options were limited.
An article in the Gazette February 2009 hinted at what might come next: “If the property’s current zone is maintained, however, an RV park would be allowed as a conditional use.”
Jump to eight years later and plans for an RV park are unfolding.
The opposition has returned.
Cameron La Follette, director of the environmental advocacy group Oregon Coast Alliance, said the plan is not the best use for the property.
La Follette said the development lacks the infrastructure to support an urban project in a rural area, and that ultimately, the land should be back in public hands.
“Just because the parks system didn’t have a plan for this plot didn’t mean it was valueless to the public,” La Follette said. “Put in a trail loop, install other interpretive uses. There are lots of things you can do there. But an RV park in this area is something we don’t feel comfortable with.”
The property, east of U.S. Highway 101 across from the Arcadia Beach Wayside, is zoned recreational management and agriculture-forestry.
Recreation management zoning comes with strict guidelines.
According to the county master plan, this zone is intended to be applied to existing public and private parks, particularly those that contain significant natural values. These areas are intended to accommodate the type of recreational development that ensures the maintenance of the site’s natural values.
It appears unlikely the Parks Department will try to repurchase the property they traded away in 2002, Havel said this month. The department does still acquire and dispose of property, and trades are among the options available for doing both things.
But, Havel added: “It would be highly unusual for us to reacquire property that disposed of because it wasn’t contributing noticeably to the state park system. The question would be, what has changed? The reasons the property was a candidate for disposition in the first place are probably still true, but even if something dramatic has changed, becoming a priority for state park acquisition may take years and requires extensive study. Since the funds available for acquisition are very tight, the competition is fierce. We’re focused more on a few ongoing projects and improving existing properties than new acquisitions.”
There are better and likely faster ways to buy a property that don’t involve state park acquisition, Havel said — private purchase by a nonprofit with complementary goals or other government agencies with a vested interest in future use of the property.
“If he can get eight houses on it it’s probably worth $800,000 or $1 million,” Morgan said. “Just roughly $100,000 a lot. But if he has marbled murrelet problems, it may be worth much less than that.”
Ideally, Morgan suggested, affected neighbors would get together and purchase it from him.
“It is in the best interest of the threatened marbled murrelet and people that care about the birds’ dwindling critical habitat to try and purchase this land now,” Mike Manzulli, president of the Oregon Coast Alliance and a member of the Ecola Watershed Council, said.
“Anything is for sale,” Smejkal said this month. He said he had yet to be approached by potential purchaser.
This property is within the North Coast Land Conservancy’s focus area, the Coastal Edge, right by the proposed Rainforest Reserve, North Coast Land Conservancy Executive Director Katie Voelke said.
“Being adjacent to state forest land and state park, and being great wildlife habitat, it becomes a good fit for conservation,” Voelke said. “If Mr. Smejkal is a landowner interested in selling land for its conservation value, we’d be interested in talking with him about this land. To date we have not heard from him.”
A public meeting on the development site takes place Thursday, Sept. 28, at the Cannon Beach Fire Hall, 188 E. Sunset Boulevard at 11 a.m.