CANNON BEACH - The Cannon Beach City Council will decide during a special meeting Feb. 24, if it will submit a ballot measure in May to purchase land that could be traded for 800 acres in the Ecola Creek watershed.

The meeting will begin at 7 p.m. at City Hall. Public testimony will be taken.

The ballot measure, which could amount to $4 million, would pay for up to six parcels of land elsewhere in Clatsop County. The council would trade the land to the state Department of Forestry and receive in return 800 acres of forestry department-owned land east of the city limits.

If the council waits until November to put the ballot measure before voters, it would have to renegotiate a sales agreement with Hampton Affiliates, which owns some of the land the city wants to buy. The current agreement with Hampton calls for the city to proceed with a May election.

City officials have until March 2 to decide what to do, or, according to the agreement, they might have to forfeit $50,000 they deposited on the Hampton property last fall.

When they made the agreement with Hampton, city officials had expected they would have a commitment from the Board of Forestry to go ahead with the land trade. However, it appears now that a formal agreement may not be made until September, city Planning Director Rainmar Bartl told the City Council during a meeting Tuesday night.

"We would have to see if they would be willing to renegotiate the sales purchase agreement to allow us to extend this to a November election," Bartl said.

The forestry department, which has done land exchanges for several years, requires that land to be traded matches the harvestable timber value for the land the department already owns. The department will accept only 10 percent of a property's value in cash.

For several months, city officials searched for land that would yield the same timber value as the Ecola Creek property. The forestry department required that the land be in Clatsop County because some of the income from timber harvests is paid to the county.

Bartl said the council could go ahead with the May election, and if voters approve the measure, that approval could be considered an "authorization."

"You're getting an authorization from voters to potentially spend the fund," he said. "There's nothing in the measure that says you have to spend it."

Bartl said he thought the city had up to three years to act before the authorization expired.

City officials have already completed several steps to accomplish the trade but have many more to take, Bartl said. So far, he added, forestry officials appear to be in agreement with the city's efforts, even though there is no formal commitment yet.

Ron Zilli, assistant forester for the Clatsop County area, concurred. He told the council that the department requires, among other things, that the land it receives in trade be adjacent to or surrounded by land already managed by the forestry department. The department also weighs the biological and recreational value of the properties.

The 800 acres of Ecola Creek watershed has some biological - habitat - value, Zilli noted, but the city's conservation plan "shouldn't cause any concern" for the forestry department.

During the public participation portion of the meeting, Bill Bennett, of Cannon Beach, said he was concerned that voters might not understand that, although the 800 acres is in the Ecola Creek watershed, it "has nothing at all to do with the city of Cannon Beach drinking water."

Most of the 800 acres proposed for exchange is located in the North Fork Ecola Creek drainage, and the city has no right of any water use there, Bennett said.

The 800 acres, he added, which is already in public ownership, would just be managed by another public entity, this time the city.

"The city does not have foresters, biologists or ecologists on staff to support this kind of management obligation," said Bennett.

"This seems to be the wrong economic time to be moving forward with a $4 million dollar bond issue to purchase a tract of forest land that really adds nothing to the immediate livability of this community," he added. "The council should go slower on the overall consideration and not seek to get this on the May ballot."

Results from a citywide survey taken in December indicate that at least 67 percent of the respondents would "definitely" or "probably" support a $4 million ballot measure. Only 13 percent said they would definitely vote against it.

Almost 25 percent - or 244 of the city's 1,164 registered voters - responded to the survey.

Survey respondents said the city's highest priorities in the Ecola Creek watershed should be safeguarding local water quality; safeguarding local water quality; and preserving natural areas, open space, wetlands and forestlands.

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