After more than six hours of public testimony and debate, the Clatsop County Board of Commissioners approved the zone change sought by the new owners of the Gearhart golf course for a condominium development.

The board voted 3-1 to uphold the Gearhart City Council's decision to approve the re-zone of two parcels for Marty Kehoe and partners, who plan to build 24 condominiums on the first fairway at Gearhart Golf Links.

Commissioners Russ Earl, Tim Gannaway and Richard Lee voted for the zone change and Commission Chairman Sam Patrick opposed it. Commissioner Bob Green excused himself from the discussion and vote, citing questions about his eligibility to hear the issue (see related story).

The board's approval is tentative pending the drafting and adoption of findings for the decision. Project opponents are expected to appeal the decision to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.

Wednesday's arguments echoed those made several times before to the Gearhart Planning Commission and City Council and the county planning commission, with Kehoe and supporters saying the project will provide the necessary funding to help the debt-ridden golf course remain solvent, while opponents claimed the development did not meet the land-use requirements and will detract from the historic course.

But some of the rancor that's characterized much of the issue came to the surface as well. Kehoe said opponents have "maligned" the developers and resorted to wild charges and rumors to block the project.

"If you oppose the opponents you're part of some giant conspiracy," he said. "This is a classic example of 'not in my backyard.'"

Bill Berg, a member of the Gearhart Planning Commission, which voted unanimously against the zone change, in turn accused the developers of conducting an "extensive propaganda campaign" and resorting to threats to pursue a hotel project in order to pressure the city to approve the condominium zone change.

The request changes 1.89 acres of open space-zoned land on the golf course to high-density residential for the condominiums. In return, a .98-acre of commercial property just east of the clubhouse would be re-zoned as open space.

The property, located within Gearhart's urban growth boundary but outside the city limits, came before the county under the joint management agreement government land-use review in the city's urban growth area.

More than 40 people offered testimony, with citizens on both sides claiming to speak for the bulk of Gearhart residents.

"When I first heard about this, I said 'not in my neighborhood,'" said Bob Turner. "But I went to the meetings, and saw what Mr. Kehoe had planned - I think it's a win-win situation."

Jane Shehane, part of the 3-2 majority on the Gearhart City Council that supported the application in February, said there was strong community support for the project.

"A small group of people has loudly expressed its opposition, but this group does not speak for everyone in Gearhart, or a majority," she said.

One of Shehane's opponents on the council, Mayor Kent Smith, said a development

Kent Smith

on the golf course like Kehoe's was "never conceived" when the city drew up its comprehensive land-use land in the 1970s, which calls for maintaining the semi-rural, low-density nature of the community.

Anita Barbey said her father, a former Gearhart planning commissioner, would be "turning over in his grave" over the proposed project.

"This will open the door to more high-density development," she said, adding that the developers' contention that they need the condominiums to keep the golf course operating ignores the possibility that another owner could make the facility work without new development.

The condominium project, Kehoe said, will bring in an estimated $1 million that will help offset the approximately $4 million debt that Kehoe and his partners assumed when they bought the golf course from the Kelly family last year. That debt, largely the result of the new, and overbuilt, Kelly House, he said, will continue to saddle the operation unless it can be reduced and could eventually lead to the course being closed.

"When we took it over we knew we had a narrow window to turn it around," he said.

Opponents argued that the new owners' financial needs are not a legitimate land-use need as described in the city's comprehensive plan, and that the future of the golf course doesn't rest solely on whether the Kehoe group can get its zone change request approved.

"These are sophisticated investors who knew the financial condition of the golf course," said attorney Peggy Hennessy, representing a group of opponents. "There is no assurance that the profits (from the condominiums) will be used to maintain the remaining golf course. The zone change itself will not serve to protect the golf course."

Hennessy also argued that the request does not meet the requirement to maintain existing residential density in the "established neighborhoods." Most of the nearest property, not including the rest of the golf course itself, is zoned for single-family homes, Hennessy said.

The applicants countered that the actual development on the ground in the vicinity of the property presents far greater density than is proposed with the condominium development.

Patrick said he agreed that the developers had not met all the criteria.

"I'm not certain you can equate the financial stability of the organization with a land-use need," he said.

But the rest of the board disagreed. Lee pointed to a recent magazine article about a slump in the golf industry. "A golf course has to have some other type of development to survive," he said. "I truly believe they're working for the good of the community."

Gannaway said he was inclined to support the decision of the Gearhart City Council, the body ultimately accountable to the local citizens. But though he supported the application, Gannaway said the city's findings on the neighborhood density question were "weak" and asked that more complete language be drafted for the board to consider when it votes on its own findings.

Kehoe said he would accept four proposed conditions offered by Hennessy, including one making permanent a deed restriction prohibiting any further development on the golf course. The developers would also be required to pay $1 million within 60 days to reduce the balance on the golf course mortgage, and to make public the financial books and records on the facility.

The developers also propose to place deed restrictions blocking further development on the remaining commercial property around the Kelly House, he said.