Will JCSA transfer violate LWCF terms?

CJ Schatza, IVN copy editor

The transfer of county-owned Sportsman Park and its popular shooting range is looking more certain than ever as the Board of Josephine County Commissioners has approved the land sale contract with the Sportsman Association.

However, one important question remains regarding whether discarding the property will put the county in violation of terms agreed to in the 1990s when an $11,000 Land and Water Conservation Fund grant was allocated for bathroom renovations at Sportsman Park.

More importantly, would violating these terms jeopardize future state and federal grants sought by Josephine County?

Commissioner Darin Fowler made it clear at the June 8 county meeting that he would like to find out.

“I wanted you to clarify if this in any way will jeopardize our future ability to get grants from Oregon or the federal government based on the one piece of property being tied to a grant in the past,” Fowler said to JoCo legal counsel Wally Hicks. “And then furthermore, could we retain that one little piece (of Sportsman Park) and alleviate any grant concerns?”

Fowler elaborated that not transferring that segment of the park to JCSA would be possible because it is not an “integral” part of the firing range. Rather, “it’s just that strip along the road (Interstate 5).”

In response to Fowler’s concern, Hicks read a statute from LWCF that shed light on the implications of discarding property tied to a LWCF grant:

“No property acquired or developed with assistance under this section shall, without the approval of the secretary (of the Department of the Interior) be converted to other than outdoor public recreation uses.”

At previous meetings, the commissioners debated whether transferring the property to a private entity but requiring it remain open to the public for recreation would keep JoCo in LWCF compliance.

Hicks said it “remains an open question” although federal authorities have been petitioned for answers regarding the legal implications. According to Hicks, Congressman Cliff Bentz has asked on behalf of the county but has not heard back.

“This sounds like it’s going to retain a public use,” Fowler said. “And if it changes (the park) comes back to us, so we’re not putting that grant in jeopardy, I don’t think.”

Fowler added, “But I’m not a lawyer.”

Hicks said that while it appears the clause ensuring Sportsman Park reverts to county ownership if it does not remain open for public recreation will satisfy the Department of the Interior’s rules, the matter is not “thoroughly resolved.”

Commissioner Dan DeYoung also asked if the fact that there is a gun range on Sportsman Park violates any LWCF grant terms, but Hicks replied that since the range was already there when the grant was awarded, “that would be a shift in the federal interpretation.”

Hicks also explained, “The state has reportedly told our Parks Department that they consider the property to be noncompliant due to the cell tower as it is. We haven’t pushed that issue and apparently neither has the state, so I think that’s what’s caused the churning of this issue and nonresponsiveness from the federal government.”

Board Chair Herman Baertschiger added, “The determination of whether we’re out of compliance or not is left with the Secretary of the Interior, not the state of Oregon.”

But, Hicks rebutted, “The state is responsible for relaying evidence of noncompliance.”

“For whatever reason I don’t think an $11,000 grant given some 30-something years ago is a real high priority with the Department of the Interior right now,” said Baertschiger. “That’s how I’m reading it.”

DeYoung also voiced his view that the $11,000 grant would have a “depreciation schedule attached” that would erase the value of the park upgrades by now, given that they were made decades ago.

Near the end of the discussion, Hicks read a statement from the National Parks Service pertaining to LWCF grants:

“6F3 of the LWCF Act contains strong provisions to protect federal investments and the quality of assistance resources. The law is firm but flexible. It recognizes the likelihood that changes in land use or development may make some assisted areas obsolete over time, particularly in rapidly changing urban areas. At the same time, the law discourages casual ‘discards’ of park and recreation facilities by ensuring that changes or conversions from recreation use will bear a cost, a cost that assures taxpayers that investments in the ‘national recreation estate’ will not be squandered.”

The Josephine County Sportsman Association has weeks to inspect the property and deal with preparatory matters before the transfer deal is finalized, so it is possible more information regarding the LWCF grant terms and if the transfer violates them will come to light before then.