- Associated Press - Monday, May 25, 2015

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - After years of negotiations and some help from former Gov. John Kitzhaber, a Chicago-based developer has secured an unprecedented deal to swap land with the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department on the southern Oregon coast.

The state parks commission has agreed to accept several parcels of land, $2.5 million in cash for future land acquisitions and money to clean up an invasive plant species. In exchange, the state will privatize 280 acres of the state’s public coast so developer Mike Keiser can build a golf course. The land is currently the southeastern third of the Bandon State Natural Area.

Keiser built the Bandon Dunes luxury golf resort 14 miles up the road from the site he wants to develop into a project he calls Bandon Muni. He says it will provide jobs in an area that needs them, access to affordable golfing for locals and more desirable parcels for the state parks system.

“This has been a long time coming, and I think it would be a wonderful thing for the local area,” Bandon Mayor Mary Schamehorn told the Oregonian (https://bit.ly/1RiwrDC).

The deal is still subject to approval by the federal Bureau of Land Management, which gave the land Keiser wants to the state in 1968 under the condition it never be used for anything other than a public park.

Keiser’s arrangement is unusual in a state where coastal land is so beloved that the state Legislature voted in 1967 to keep the shoreline public, then bought additional acreage all along its 363 miles. The result is a network of more than 80 properties, seven of which are in Oregon’s 10 most-visited parks.

Not everyone is enthusiastic. Critics argue the deal fails to meet the department’s standards for property transactions and question whether Kitzhaber’s involvement spurred parks officials to pursue a deal with Keiser despite obstacles that could easily have derailed negotiations.

Some opponents bristle at the decision to deal exclusively with Keiser’s company, Bandon Biota LLC, rather than offering the land up for public bidding. Environmentalists say turning the land into a golf course will imperil sensitive plants and animals the parks department has taken pains to protect. And many worry the deal could set a dangerous precedent.

“It sends a message that if I have a lot of money, all I have to do is put it on the table and state parks is so desperate that they’re going to trade away parks to get what it is I’m offering,” said Bandon resident Diane Bilderback, who regularly walks the beach along the natural area.

Before resigning office, Kitzhaber made clear to state parks officials that the project was a priority, and his staff was closely involved in negotiations. Kitzhaber and his fiancé, Cylvia Hayes, toured Bandon Dunes and flew over the natural area in a helicopter Keiser hired.

Keiser also donated $25,000 to Kitzhaber’s 2014 campaign - a political reversal from 2010 when he threw money behind Republican Chris Dudley. The donation had nothing to do with Kitzhaber’s role in the Bandon State Natural Area sale, Keiser said.

The commissioners knew Kitzhaber was a fan of Keiser’s plan, but all said pressure from the governor didn’t influence their vote. Likewise, former agency director Tim Wood said the governor’s support didn’t influence parks staff who advised the commission.

Keiser already owns five world-class courses plus a putting green and a practice course just north of Bandon. His Bandon Dunes Golf Resort is one of the south coast’s largest employers, with 550 people on the payroll.

The resort is pricey. An 18-hole tee time runs as much as $310 in the summer - out of reach for the blue-collar golfer.

That, Keiser says, is why he wants a piece of Bandon State Natural Area.

His plan for the land is Bandon Muni - a 27-hole course with coastal views, expertly designed greenways, affordable prices for the locals. Coos and Curry County residents would pay about $20 for a round at Bandon Muni, while out-of-staters would pay resort rates.

There will be no lodging at Bandon Muni.

“I’ve always felt a sadness that they approved this, allowed me to build it, but they never play it,” he said.

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Information from: The Oregonian, https://www.oregonlive.com

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