Lane County Parks takes community input

The public had a chance last week to weigh in on Lane County Parks’ plans for the future of local park and recreation areas.

In its fourth and final leg of a community input tour around the county, parks department personnel stopped by Cottage Grove on May 25 to give a general overview of the state of the county’s parks and elicit public opinion. While the conversation revolved around parks in general, the two-hour meeting also included public comment specific to Baker Bay Campground at Dorena Lake.

The community input meetings, which have taken place in regions of the county concerning Florence, McKenzie River and Eugene-Springfield-area parks, were conducted as the parks department hopes to introduce a $6 million five-year local option levy on this November’s ballot.

“We are at a pivotal point in our parks system,” said Lane County Parks Manager Brett Henry. “We have worked extensively with community-led advisory groups over the past few years to map out a sustainable future for Lane County’s parks and we continue to need feedback from the people who visit our parks.”

The input meetings asked the public what enhancements would improve accessibility and access, which recreational features are most desirable and what educational elements would enhance the visitor experience.

The park of focus in the Cottage Grove area, Baker Bay, includes a 48-site campground, playground and a 27-slip marina with accommodations for some dry moorage. There is also a designated swimming area, boat ramp and two large-group, day-use facilities with electricity and water features.

Parking can accommodate 183 cars and 51 car/trailer combos.

Many in the Cottage Grove audience of about two dozen represented members of the local pickleball community and almost all had positive impressions of local parks.

However, local businessman Len Blackstone said he was sad to report that, following a tour of the area’s covered bridges and parks, he was left feeling that the best words to describe Baker Bay in particular were “sadness” and “disgraceful”.

Specifically, he said, the restrooms were in an unacceptable condition.

“The condition of our parks are incredibly critical,” he said, to the health and success of the area’s tourism, as well as community pride.

Following a presentation about the state of Lane County’s parks in general, audience members brainstormed ideas for improvement.

Attendees then voted by putting stickers on ideas they liked the most. From that process, a few concepts emerged as the most popular.

The top choice from attendees was to tie Cottage Grove’s covered bridges to local bike paths, which would also include improving maintenance of the bridges and providing signage.

Second most popular was improving Baker Bay by taking care of native vegetation and adding watercraft rentals to its features.

People also wanted to see more events, races and festivals hosted at local parks to increase tourism appeal.

Implementing such changes will depend on funding, however.

During his presentation, Henry put the funding situation into historical context. He described the decades of the 1950s to the ‘70s as a time of growth for Lane County Parks.

“There was a lot of land acquisition and the county was flush with money,” he explained. “Timber revenue was coming in. We received at that time a portion of the gas tax as well as the general fund. So a lot of revenue was coming in and parks were being acquired.”

By the mid-‘70s, more than 35 full-time employees took care of the county’s 74 parks.

However, Henry pointed out, there was a marked decrease in funding sources starting in the 1980s and the state of the county’s parks started to decline. Factoring into this was an economic recession leading to the closing of parks, a lack of a stable revenue source for maintenance and operation and having more facilities than the county could adequately maintain.

New funding strategies had to be implemented over the next couple decades, which included receiving car rental tax (which became 45 percent of the operation budget by the year 2000), increasing user fees and reducing staff to just 17 full-time employees to cover around 59 parks.

Today, Lane County Parks receives no property tax funding and instead relies primarily on user fees and a portion of the taxes collected when hotel rooms are rented or recreational vehicles purchased in Lane County.

County parks are funded primarily (about a quarter of funding) through camping fees and the renting of the Camp Lane venue. Nearly 20 percent comes from the transient room tax.

Revenue sources like car rental tax, day passes, moorage and season passes make up smaller slivers of the funding.

The problem now, Henry said, is “we can’t generate enough fees to keep up with the demand that we have in maintenance. So, what ends up happening is we get a backlog of what’s called deferred maintenance.”

A firm was hired to assess how much in deferred maintenance had accumulated. In an assessment of 17 of its current 69 parks (which is all the department could afford to assess), around $21 million in deferred maintenance needs were found in those parks alone.

“So you can imagine what it is for the entire parks system,” said Henry.

To sustainably operate, it was estimated that 11 additional full-time staff and another $2.8 to $3 million per year are needed.

A strategic plan which will span over the next two years has given direction to implement the strategies of the Parks Funding Task Force, which comprised mainly of citizens from around the county.

The funding task force has identified five main strategies, which include: finding long-term sustainable funding for park maintenance and operation; addressing the multi-million-dollar backlog of deferred maintenance; enhancing the county’s ability to pursue and implement conservation and habitat restoration projects; providing environmental and cultural education programs for youth and adults; and focusing on projects that generate net revenue.

Also, the Parks and Open Space Master Plan, adopted in 2018 as a 20-year plan, identified that the county should be making significant investments in specific parks.

“We’re not going to tackle all 69 at one time,” said Jodi Low, volunteer and marketing coordinator with the county. “We don’t have the manpower; we don’t have the budget.”

The plan has prioritized targeted investments such as distribution and equity of recreation options, respecting the unique character and assets of each park, building on sites with existing access and infrastructure and identifying opportunities to improve recreation experiences.

The proposed levy would fund not only deferred maintenance, but education, conservation, special projects and general operations of parks.

It’s estimated the countywide five-year local option levy would allow for $7.5 million to be generated annually and cost taxpayers with a $231,000 home $38 a year.

In July, Lane County Parks aims to bring the proposal the county’s Board of Commissioners for approval and, if greenlit, voters will have a chance to vote on the item this November.

More information and documents are available online at Navigate to the “Public Works” page, click on the “Parks” tab and view “Current Projects” to access the information from the community input meetings.

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