Once upon a time, Central Oregon was defined by its destination resorts. In fact, some would say that Central Oregon's emergence as a destination location can be attributed in large part to the popularity of its destination resorts.
These days, however, when the topic of conversation is destination resorts, more and more Central Oregonians are saying, "Enough is enough."
It's been more than 30 years since Bend's Inn of the Seventh Mountain, Mount Bachelor Village and Sunriver (15 miles south of Bend) first began to draw visitors to the region. Back then, it was primarily vacationers who took advantage of the many amenities the upscale resorts had to offer -- i.e., gorgeous settings, nationally ranked golf courses, fine-dining establishments, tennis courts, horseback riding, easy access to countless outdoors activities. The fact that it was possible to not only vacation at the resorts but also purchase a home within their boundaries only added to their appeal.
As the region became increasingly popular, the number of destination resorts grew, and their reach began to extend beyond Bend into Sisters (Black Butte Ranch), and then to Redmond (Eagle Crest). Meanwhile, as developable land in or near Bend became more and more expensive (not to mention, hard to come by, thanks to the state's strict land-use laws), the focus of area resorts began to shift, from the vacation retreat with a smattering of second homes to a resort/subdivision loaded with special perks - at least one golf course (preferably more), swimming complex, health club, spa, maybe an equestrian center.
By the time Brasada Ranch entered the picture in 2005, the regional real estate boom was in full swing. With outside interest in Central Oregon at its peak, Brasada became a hot commodity even before it had anything to sell. Located about 20 minutes east of Bend near the unincorporated community of Powell Butte (and not far from another new million-dollar golf community/resort, Pronghorn), Brasada's first offering of lots sold in June 2005 via a timed lottery; all 201 home sites were snapped up within two days. Brasada's second phase -- 57 ranch-style cabins, offered fully furnished -- debuted four months later and sold out, again in two days.
Not to be outdone, yet another upstart, Caldera Springs (south of Sunriver's Crosswater golf club, also owned by the Sunriver folks), launched in December 2005 -- and had similar luck, selling 203 of 206 homesites during its two-day sales event. Next came another new Bend offering (Tetherow); yet another has been in the planning stages in Tumalo for three years (Thornburgh Resort).
The Reach Extends Beyond Deschutes County
Until Brasada Ranch was developed, however, all of Central Oregon's destination resorts were located in rural pockets of Deschutes County. Today, however, in addition to Brasada, three more destination resorts are in the works for Crook County: Remington Ranch, Hidden Canyon and Crossing Trails (formerly known as Seven Peaks). Two others have been proposed for Jefferson County, and at least one (Crescent Creek) has been proposed for Klamath County -- just beyond the Deschutes County line south of Bend.
In addition, the owners of Aspen Lakes, a golf community in Sisters, are hoping to recategorize their "cluster" development as a destination resort, which would enable them to build more homes and add overnight lodging.
Yikes! What a difference a few years makes.
Here's another key change in the landscape: Most of the newer resorts, unlike their predescessors, are receiving a less-than-warm welcome from the communities that surround them. Some area residents are beginning to wonder, "Is Central Oregon in danger of having too much of a good thing?"
Is that even possible? After all, Deschutes County resorts alone contributed nearly $26 million in property taxes in 2005-'06. As Jefferson County Commissioner Mary Zemke has stated, "Destination resorts will provide funding for schools and will help our communities."
There are those who would argue (and have argued, repeatedly over the years) that the influx of visitors/second-home owners is vital for Central Oregon's local economies in other ways as well -- to its retailers, restaurant owners, hoteliers and recreational outfitters, to name just a few. So now, more than ever -- when many of the region's municipal staffs are facing huge budget shortfalls, in part because of plunging development fees -- it would seem that destination resorts would be considered an asset to their communities.
And yet...more and more Central Oregonians are asking themselves (and their city/county officials), "Does Central Oregon really need another golf course?" (We've got upwards of 30 as it is.) "How much traffic/water/sewage can our already crowded systems tolerate?" "Does the creation of a golf course/water park/lake make sense in a farming and ranching community where water is a highly valued, often vital commodity?"
In fact, some local residents are going to great lengths to ensure that no resort is built in their communities. A few noteworthy examples:
**Last year, after plans for two destination resorts in Jefferson County in the vicinity of the Metolius River Basin (and not far from Sisters) were announced, the Sisters City Council passed a resolution supporting a Senate bill that would have banned the construction of destination resorts in Jefferson County in or near the Metolius Basin. The Metolius River is listed as a national wild and scenic river. (The bill, supported by state Sen. Ben Westlund of Tumalo, died in committee after Gov. Kulongoski threatened to veto the measure.) When a decision this February from the Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals regarding the Metolius-area destination resorts ruled that Jefferson County needed to reassess impacts to wildlife but didn't address the protection of other natural resources involving the Metolius, Central Oregon LandWatch and Friends of the Metolius filed an appeal with the Oregon Court of Appeals.
**A grass-roots group, The Concerned Citizens of Crook County (which has been extremely vocal in its opposition of the three Crook County planned resorts), gathered enough voter signatures to get a measure submitted for the upcoming May primary that could potentially repeal the county's destination resort overlay map (which was created in 2003), which would make it impossible for new destination resorts to locate in the county.
**Tumalo resident Steve Munson recently commissioned a report from a local hydrogeologist that concluded that six wells planned for Tumalo's Thornburgh Resort (which includes three golf courses) would divert groundwater that flows into the Deschutes River and Whychus Creek downstream from the resort site, which would have a potentially negative impact on area fish, including the federally threatened bull trout. Munson is one of many Tumalo residents who have fought vigorously to prevent Thornburgh's development from the onset. At the initial public hearing concerning the resort's proposal in 2005, the room was packed with Tumalo residents opposing the resort. After county commissioners approved the initial master plan -- reversing county hearings officer Anne Corcoran Briggs's ruling that Thornburgh failed to prove it had enough water to supply the resort, didn't adequately protect open space and focused too heavily on single-family home development -- Munson and fellow Tumalo resident Nunzie Gould appealed the decision to the state Land Use Board of Appeals (claiming that Thornburgh's application to build the resort was insufficient in 30 different areas). LUBA subsequently ordered Deschutes County commissioners to review a handful of shortcomings in Thornburgh's revised application. The Oregon Court of Appeals also cited several problems with Thornburgh's master plan. The County Commission is expected to provide a response to the two court decisions with plan revisions soon.
But Wait, There's More
It isn't just local citizens who are taking a harder look at destination resorts in Central Oregon.
Last August, Deschutes County commissioners announced that destination resort developers who didn't build enough guest lodging could find their building permits cut off under a proposed code drafted by Deschutes County staff. The goal, they said, was to strike a balance between encouraging resort development and punishing developers who flout county code.
More recently, a March 2008 report conducted by Oregon's land use agency, the Department of Land Conservation and Development, concluded that "the unanticipated impacts of destination resorts need further study and perhaps tighter regulations....The state may need to limit the number of resorts or number of resort units, and change the ratio of overnight rental units to permanent homes."
The agency singled out Central Oregon as a particular area of concern. According to an article in the Bend Bulletin, the report found that "The number, size and concentration of resorts in Central Oregon is resulting in types and levels of impacts that were not anticipated at the time (a state planning goal for resorts) and the statute were developed.... In recently constructed resorts in Central Oregon, the emphasis appears to be primarily on creating high end primary and second home communities rather than developments who primary objective is to attract and serve visitors."
And, finally, Deschutes County is preparing to review and perhaps revise its destination resort map for the first time since it was created in 1992. The county is asking for public feedback (an outline of the process should be available by the end of June). There's little doubt they'll get it.
So where does Central Oregon go from here? What's the best way to balance the growth needs of a popular region that has very limited developable land to start with (hence the proliferation of destination resorts) with the desire to maintain the enviable quality of life that so many people have moved to Central Oregon to enjoy?
Are you experiencing a similar predicament where you live?
UPDATE: (May 22): In Tuesday's election, Crook County residents overwhelmingly approved a measure that advises officials to repeal the county's destination resort overlay map, which could limit or prohibit future resort development. Now it's up to the county to decide whether to heed the recommendation. In the meantime, the Crook County Planning Commission has an opportunity to provide its opinion on how to proceed. In all likelihood, there will be a several-month-long period of public land-use hearings to discuss the issue before a decision is made in the fall.