Following some public backlash to a proposal that would have transferred Washington State Parks land in Packwood to Lewis County, commissioners say they want to see a more firm proposal from a local partner before assuming ownership of the property.
“That’s going to be critical to us, what kind of buy-in we get from residents,” said Commissioner Bobby Jackson.
Washington State Parks had proposed transferring the 175-acre plot to the county after deciding to surplus the land. However, some pushback from locals led the agency to cancel a scheduled vote on transfer authorization at its last meeting. The county has not yet weighed in on accepting the transfer.
At present, the forested land along Skate Creek and the Cowlitz River is “passively open,” with no development or signage and about 3 miles of hiking trails. The county has a limited parks budget, but had discussed assuming ownership as a government entity and then reaching an agreement with a nonprofit, such as Destination Packwood, to handle operations.
After discussing the potential liability of owning the property, and the concerns from some locals about possible development, county commissioners decided they want to see a clear plan from an operations partner before agreeing to the transfer. Officials said they plan to reach out to Lee Grose, a former county commissioner and board member of Destination Packwood, who has been among those pushing for the land swap. Grose has discussed installing a campground on about 30 acres of land and leaving the rest as-is.
“I’ve heard (Grose) say he’s willing and ready, but I don’t know what that looks like,” said County Manager Erik Martin.
If the land is transferred, State Parks will include a clause mandating that the land be maintained in perpetuity for recreational use. However, if the county declines to accept it, the state has threatened that they could put it up for auction, where it could be sold to a bidder such as a timber company.
“The state’s made the decision that they’re going to surplus it,” said Public Works Director Josh Metcalf, before paraphrasing the state’s message. “‘It would be in your best interest for the county to take it over.’”
Metcalf said he believed the state would not rush to auction the property if the county requested more time to consider the transfer.
Some locals have been frustrated at the speed of the transfer process, though county officials stress that any development is a long way from happening and would need to go through a lengthy process even after a transfer.
“I’m concerned with the folks who thought things were going too fast and they’ve been left out,” said County Commissioner Edna Fund.
Ultimately, county leaders believe putting campsites on the land would fill a need for Packwood and bring in more revenue to the county.
“It would fill up in a heartbeat if you had campsites there,” Martin said.
Some residents would rather not see the land developed at all, which will likely be a source of tension as the county seeks to firm up management details with a local partner. Wayne Whiton, the county's risk and safety administrator, said owning the property would not be without risk.
“Our current parks system is taxed and running on a skeleton,” he said. “Even if we were not going to touch (the park) until our budget is better, we’re still going to have some liability.”
County leaders suggested ensuring that an operating agreement with a local entity include some form of insurance coverage. Facilities Manager Doug Carey said that as long as the county has responsibility to maintain the property, it could prove a burden.
“It would be very challenging,” noting that if someone were to mark dangerous trees on the land, the county would be obliged to remove them. “If someone points out the danger and we don’t do anything, we’re liable. … For us operating a park, it would be a challenge. It’s four hours round-trip to get up there and back.”