In Happy Valley, city leaders have determined that if you want your parks done right, you build them yourself.
The city is planning to de-annex from the North Clackamas Parks & Recreation District by the end of the year, in part because while the city has more than doubled in population – and contributed $27 million to the district – it’s gotten no new neighborhood parks in 11 years.
The North Clackamas Parks & Recreation District represents more than 120,000 residents in the cities of Milwaukie, Happy Valley and surrounding unincorporated areas. It’s a service district of the county, governed by the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners.
North Clackamas Parks & Rec operates an aquatic center and a senior center and manages local parks and sports leagues. Property owners within the district pay 53 cents per $1,000 of assessed value toward those services.
When Happy Valley joined the parks district in 2006, the city had about 9,200 residents. Since then, it’s become one of the fastest growing cities in Oregon, with a population closer to 20,000.
All that new construction has generated millions of dollars in what’s called system development charges – one-time fees assessed on developers to make sure infrastructure for things like water, sewer, roads and parks can support added growth.
More people need more parks, right? For each new single family home constructed in the city, developers pay $6,075 toward parks alone.
Over 11 years, Happy Valley builders have paid a total of $17.5 million in system development charges for parks, but the district has built only one new facility in the city. The 35-acre complex of Hood View Park, which opened in 2009, features all-weather turf ball fields used by youth and adult sports leagues.
It’s a top-notch ballpark, but city leaders still expected more. Some $8 million in unspent system development charges were carried over into this year’s parks district budget.
"That park is a beautiful park," Mayor Lori DeRemer said. "But it’s not a community park, and it’s certainly no community center, and we all know what community centers cost. We’re no nearer to that goal than we were 12 years ago."
This alone was enough for city leaders to consider leaving the district – but the final straw came earlier this year, when the parks district announced plans to sell Hood View Park to the school district for use at a new high school.
They never consulted the city about it.
In exchange for selling Hood View to North Clackamas schools, the parks district will get $15.78 million in cash and two school properties in Milwaukie and Oak Grove.
The city sees the property swap as evidence the district is robbing rich Happy Valley to pay for services elsewhere. But parks director Scott Archer said Hood View’s sale would be a good thing for Happy Valley, because it means more capital to invest in those neighborhood parks the city wants.
"We didn’t go to the city and ask their permission to sell Hood View," said Gary Barth, director of Business and Community Services for Clackamas County. "They were not strategically engaged that way. But we have been hearing since 2012, 2013 that they have not been happy, so our assumption would be that they would be delighted with this transaction."
They assumed wrong.
If the parks district is going to sell its sports fields, Happy Valley is going to play hardball.
City Manager Jason Tuck believes some $9 million of Hood View Park investment rightfully belongs to Happy Valley because local system development charges and city money were used for construction and to pay down debt service on the park construction bond.
"I know the Council direction is to not get into a lawsuit," Tuck said during this week’s City Council meeting. "But… if we can’t come to an agreement, you may not have any other means but to go to a lawsuit. It’s on the table. It’s the last thing we want to do."
Parks district staff say they were surprised by Happy Valley’s moves to exit the partnership.
"When they annexed into the district, they very much wanted (Hood View) Park to happen, they put significant assets into it, they fast-tracked the planning process to get it done," Archer said. "It’s only been in the recent few years that they’ve said this isn’t meeting our needs."
And, Archer said, Tuck supported the park’s sale when he testified before County Commissioners on March 9. The parks district took this as a sign the two entities were working together for future Happy Valley parks.
In this, too, the district assumed wrong.
When Tuck told County Commissioners he supported the sale, he spent most of his testimony warning that Happy Valley should receive a portion of the proceeds.
And if the city had already decided it wanted out of the district, it was a shrewd move. By nudging forward the sale, they would essentially be liquidating their assets ahead of a divorce, making it easier for the city to recoup some of its investment.
Happy Valley is ready to control its own parks destiny. It’s a fast-growing city whose parks needs have been held in limbo for years by slow movement from North Clackamas Parks.
The city feels like it’s been strung along for years. And if they strung along the district in a few meetings?
Hey, all’s fair in parks and rec.
— Samantha Swindler
@editorswindler / 503-294-4031
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