An unlikely consortium of cranberry growers, eastern Oregon cattle ranchers, environmentalists and county commissioners are lined up to oppose a land exchange that would enable Michael Keiser, developer of the internationally acclaimed Bandon Dunes golf resort, to build another championship course along the southern Oregon coast.
The state parks commission will vote Nov. 20 whether to approve a swap involving Keiser’s corporation, Bandon Biota LLC, state park land, cash and a 6,100-acre ranch in Grant County, far to the east.
Staff with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department have recommended the commission approve the trade. To do so, the commission must agree the deal provides an “overwhelming public benefit” to the parks system that is “resounding, clear and obvious.”
Critics say it’s anything but.
In written testimony, the Grant County Stockgrowers President Jack Johns said the ranch land in his county is nothing more than “a puzzle piece in a big money business deal for Michael Keiser’s personal gain.”
Under the proposal, Bandon Biota would receive 280 non-oceanfront acres of the 878-acre Bandon State Natural Area. On that land, Keiser would build his sixth course, Bandon Links, a walking-only course — no motorized carts allowed — that the company describes as a championship, links style, affordable municipal layout. The other Bandon Dunes courses, developed over the past 15 years, are considered among the finest public courses in the world. They’re also expensive, with greens fees ranging up to $295 in the peak summer season.
In return for the state land, Bandon Biota would trade 111 acres adjacent to the natural area and 98 acres next to Bullards Beach State Park, provide $450,000 as a matching grant to protect Whale Cove, $300,000 to control gorse plants on state parks land and trail easements to two other beach areas.
It is the final element of the trade that has stirred up the most opposition. Bandon Biota would provide $2.5 million to help the state parks department buy the Grouse Mountain Ranch in Grant County, a 6,100-acre spread with rangeland and about 1,000 acres of Ponderosa pine forest.
The Grant County commissioners are harshly critical of the proposal, saying it would establish a “horrible precedent” to rural Oregon counties that are on the brink of financial insolvency. The exchange would reduce the county tax base and add more government-owned land in a county where public ownership already approaches 70 percent. The deal also would reduce the amount of grazing land available to local ranchers, the commissioners said.
In response, the parks department said it will continue hay production on Grouse Mountain Ranch and allow some commercial timber harvest. County services associated with the new park land will be “compensated,” according to the parks department’s staff report.
Back on the coast, opponents worry that continued golf course development will impact farming by reducing the “critical mass” of agricultural operations, especially cranberry bogs.
“How many golf courses do we need?” grower Jeff Haga asked. “It is creating some jobs, but there’s got to be other things that create jobs other than a bunch of golf courses.”
Cameron La Follette, land use director for the Oregon Coastal Alliance, said concerns over land use, water rights and farming infrastructure have unified opponents.
“This exchange is bringing together people who (usually) don’t talk to each other,” she said, “because Keiser wants to change the face of rural Coos County.”
A Bandon Dunes representative did not return a phone call seeking comment. In a May interview with golfchannel.com, however, Keiser is described as saying the new Bandon Links course would be a “philanthropic” offering to the community. The course would create 80 jobs, provide affordable greens fees and establish a junior caddy program, according to the online article.
Keiser is quoted as saying, “I see it as a $15 million gift to Coos and Curry County golfers and juniors who don’t even know they miss golf.”
Parks department spokesman Chris Havel said the commission’s upcoming decision is extremely difficult.
The land-use group 1000 Friends of Oregon said that’s because the exchange doesn’t meet the required legal standard of a resounding, clear and obvious public benefit.
“If you must agonize over the decision or there is even serious debate, it’s not ‘obvious’ and it does not pass the legal test,” 1000 Friends staff attorney Steve McCoy wrote to the parks commission. “The ‘overwhelming public benefit’ is simply not there.”