Interview with Andrea Scharf
The Yachats Gazette spoke with Andrea Scharf, author of Saving Big Creek, a story about coastal residents versus modern development right in our back yard.
TYG: So, what got you interested in the story of this incident?
Andrea: Big Creek? Well, when I moved here in 1994, I got to meet a bunch of people who were involved with it, and the campaign was about half-way through at that point. So I heard different stories. Not much was happening. The exciting part happened at the beginning, in 1980.
TYG-Graphic Design: Oh! I think we should start at the beginning!
Andrea: You want to start at the beginning? [laughs] Okay! In 1980, this developer from Honolulu, who actually worked for the US Customs Service, had a wife who was from Vancouver, Washington. They drove down the coast, on vacation, looking for land. They saw a "For Sale" sign at this property in Big Creek, which is about halfway between Yachats and Florence. It's just a little creek that comes out into the ocean under one of those bridges.
TYG: I know the place.
Andrea: So he bought the property. At the same time, in 1981 when he bought the property, there was a butterfly called the Oregon Silver Spot butterfly [Speyeria zerene hippolyta], and its habitat is along the salt-spray meadows. That was declared a threatened species by the Environmental Protection Agency.
TYG-GD: How big was the property?
Andrea: 186 acres.
TYG-GD: All waterfront?
Andrea: No, it was actually on both sides of the river, going up this way [gestures east], and up this way [gestures north] was where he planned to build the resort.
TYG-GD: Is there a campground there now?
Andrea: No, there's nothing there, and there never will be. The whole idea, when it was turned over to State Parks, was that nothing could be built, except maybe a trail. At this point, nobody's doing anything.
TYG: There's a road that goes through there.
Andrea: There's a road that goes through and up to the ridge, and there are people who live further up Big Creek. It had been used by people; Native Americans had camped in this area, usually during the summer; they gathered berries and prepared for winter, and it was kind of a summer, working vacation. So there are two roads that go through the property. Settlers built property near the mouth of the river and further up, and they raised cattle—they ran cattle through this area. You've probably seen Stonefield Beach? Stonefield was the name of these brothers. There were four of them.
TYG: I always thought it was just because it was a stony field—that's one of the few ones where it actually makes perfect sense!
Andrea: Nope! [laughs] They moved here from Minnesota or Michigan, and the brothers claimed homesteads. George had a homestead at Ten Mile Creek, and his brother Emil had property here [at Big Creek]. So they ran the cattle back and forth along this area. So the property was inherited and passed down to different people, and so this developer, whose name was Vic (Victor) Renaghan, bought the property. It was zoned for forest and game—elk had been hunted there, and it had been logged up on the ridges. In order to build his resort, which is what he wanted to do, he had to get a zone change.
At that time, the Lane County Planning Department had a sort of subsidiary in the west part, because it was a big county. So the West Lane Planning Commission, over about three months or so, took testimony and read materials; he brought all sorts of materials in to convince them that this was a great idea. And they turned him down. Unanimously. They flat said, "No, we're not going to change the zone on this." And all the people who were working so hard to keep this natural said, "Phew! This is great! We're okay!" Well, of course, he went to the county commissioners and appealed that ruling. And, no surprise, they overturned that ruling and gave him a zone change.
Andrea: Because the guy who was chair of the Board of County Commissioners represented the West Lane area, and it was economically distressed. The developer said this was going to bring jobs, tourists, it was going to be wonderful; people want to come here and have a place to stay and they don't want to camp, you know, it's going to be rich people! So they overturned it. So the people who were opposed to the resort filed an appeal with the Land Use Board of Appeals [LUBA]. All of this was very new, because Oregon had only passed a land use law in 1973.
TYG: First test of the system!
Andrea: It was, it was pretty early, in 1981. Eventually, this case went all the way up to the State Supreme Court, and they overturned the ruling. They said that these people did not have a chance to present their case, because when the Board of Commissioners overturned it, there was no notice in any of the coastal newspapers, and there were no posts on the property [about future use] the way they were supposed to. So when they filed the case with LUBA, the rules were very restrictive about who could file an appeal. You had to live adjacent to the property under concern, and nobody did—it was Forest Service property. People lived up the road, and they tried to make a case, but it was pretty iffy. And LUBA said, "No, you don't have standing," which is the right to file an appeal.
TYG: That makes sense.
Andrea: Well, under the rules, it did. So when it went up to the Supreme Court, they overturned that, and it opened up the process and allowed more people [to have standing]. If you attended a Planning Commission meeting, if you wrote a letter, if you indicated your interest, you had standing. So it opened up the process, even when they were writing the rules for the State Land Use Planning. That was a big debate: the League of Women Voters wanted it open; other people like Senator Atiyeh, who became the governor and was conservative, wanted it narrow. And narrow was what had won out. But this [case] opened it all up. So now when there's a land use decision, just about anybody can come in and have a say.
So, while that was going through its process, the developer began doing what he wanted to do: putting together packages for financing, and that sort of thing. So every time something happened, the opponents had to kind of gather their resources and fight it. So one of the things that happened, was that the developer decided that he would get financing from the State's Industrial Development bond system.
TYG: I'm surprised that falls under "Industrial"!
Andrea: Bingo!, as people say. [laughs] That was true! So at that time there were five people on the Board of Commissioners, and the developer went to them and asked them to endorse his application. Peter DeFazio was one of the commissioners (he later became a congressman). He said, "This is not industrial! The intent was industry that would create good jobs for people—family wage jobs. This is just going to be people cleaning rooms, people doing yardwork. The building of it is only short-term construction."
TYG: It isn't industry anyway.
Andrea: Exactly. Well, [the way] the law is written there are certain other things you can do. So when the opponents heard about his application, they got their resources together. But they were very clever. The developer called them "just a bunch of hippies." And, it's true, they were sort of counter-culture and they came out here. Some of them had homesteads up Big Creek and around the area. They were artisans, and people like that—it's Yachats, you know, the people who moved here. But they were not just a bunch of dope-smoking hippies. They were smart, they were educated, and their sort of leader was a guy named Tom Smith. He lived right on the corner of Ten Mile Creek Road and Highway 101. He had worked for the National Wildlife Federation and Travel Unlimited, and he was a wildlife biologist. He knew stuff, and he knew how to work with government. He was a little bit older than everyone else, so he provided leadership. So when people said, "We don't know what to do about this!" he told them, "Well, now you go and meet with this person, and that person, and these are the things you do. You file petitions, and you file appeals." So they were pretty sophisticated, and they were on it all the time, and they did not let it slide. So they got some people to go in and testify against these bonds. And the developer was furious, because he got turned down, and he said, "You just cost me millions of dollars." He tried to get the lawyer who was involved to spar, and he was getting very mad. He was getting frustrated. He really felt the whole system was against him. He was an interesting person to talk to, though. So while all this was going on, and they were trying to keep the development from happening, they were also trying to find money to buy him out. And he was doing everything he could to make the property worth as much as could. He paid—I think it was $286,000—for the property.
TYG: Wow, even for a 1980, that feels like nothing for 186 acres! How did that ever get assessed? I feel like that should be at least in the millions, even back then...
Andrea: Correct! Well, it was zoned for timber, so the timber value of that property was whatever it was. Anyway, that's what he got it for. So he began doing things to create what they call a turnkey property: somebody could come in and all the permits would be done, all this stuff would be done. He didn't get a whole lot done—I think he ended up paying his lawyer to do a lot of things. But eventually, the Nature Conservancy came in and bought the property. And they paid $4,050,000.
TYG: That sounds a little more fair for that property.
Andrea: He made good money. He spent quite a bit of money on fees and permits and all of that. And of course he had to pay capital gains taxes on it. And he had some individual investors, and I believe he paid them back. So he didn't become a bazillionaire, but he did okay. The Nature Conservancy bought it in 2008. The way they buy things is that they have a revolving fund, and they have to convince their Board that this is a good project. Then they loan the individual at the Portland office the money, and get grants and thing from other agencies (the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board put in almost half the money), and then they buy the property. It was very popular—part of the reason was the butterfly, which was very appealing. And that area has no development there. So the idea of having a mega-resort there—and it kept on getting bigger and bigger [in concept]...
TYG: That's what I was thinking! It seems a bit of an odd place to put a resort. I wouldn't have gone for it there.
Andrea: Well, let me tell you why! [chuckles] The resorts don't make money. What makes money is the residential development around the resort. So places like Sun River, or Black Butte Ranch, which is over in eastern Oregon, are resorts, yes. There's the hotel, and restaurants, and golf courses and stuff. But then they began selling the lots to build second homes or cottages, and then gradually it becomes regular homes. And that's exactly what the state's land use laws were designed to prevent, because as is very obvious, why would you suddenly have a little residential community in the middle of nothing? It creates more traffic, it requires facilities to be put in—electric lines and all of that—and part of the reason he didn't get his industrial development bond was that people went in and said, "Look, here's the economic analysis! This resort is not going to make the kind of money that's going to justify waiving taxes." Because for industrial development bonds, people borrow money at a lower interest rate, and they get to write off whatever they gain. So if there's not enough other income being generated, it just doesn't make sense. And if people were going to work there, and live there, and have children, they need transportation like a school bus—it was just crazy.
TYG: Plus, the land around there is just awful for building anything! Even if the ground were adamant—the most stable material imaginable—the slope is awful. There's no flat pretty much, except right in the river valley.
TYG: And that's where the resort would be.
Andrea: No, the resort would be on the slope, on the north side of the road. You can't build next to the river—it's a riparian zone. And in fact, one of the things he tried to do was to carve out some lots on the hillside, on the south side of the river. If you drive by there, you'll see a little road has been bulldozed out. They were going to be view lots—you could see the whole ocean. But there was no way to get to it. You couldn't go across the riparian area, and to build another bridge would be too costly, so he built that new road in. And of course for the fire department that's not going to work.
TYG: You need a real road.
Andrea: You need a real road, you need a place where fire trucks can turn around. And on this side he said he was trying to build care-taker cottages. He really wanted to build a house that he could sell, then he could recoup some money, then he could build another house... When the Planning Department came to look, it was situated so it could look out at the ocean. The planner said he didn't meet the "straight face test." [laughter] And right where he thought he'd build this house was butterfly habitat.
So, Nature Conservancy bought the property in 2008. There was a financial crash and it was really hard for them to get the money to pay back their Board. It's a revolving fund, so it can be used for somebody else. So it took them until 2013 to put together all of the grants. Do you know Paul Engelmeyer? He worked for Audubon, and he does a lot of work promoting the welfare of birds and the environment and wetlands—he's an interesting person to talk to. Anyway, he was part of the opposition to this, and he also lived up in that area. He would make sure that the people at the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land knew about this property. So when the guy who did real estate acquisitions for the Trust for Public Land was hired, the first person he was told to see was Paul Engelmeyer down on the coast. And Paul gave a tour of the property, and said, "This is our number one priority." So as things finally moved along, and other options fell through—the real estate market had changed, and finances were bad, it took them much longer than they thought it would to pay back their original loan, and they couldn't transfer the property to the State Parks until it was a clear title, until they'd paid off the loan. So, in September 2013, which where I started to start, there was a celebration at Cape Perpetua to celebrate the turning over of this property to State Parks. A lot of the people I'd been hearing stories about for years were there. And of course, when they started doing this, they were young guys. They were in their twenties, maybe thirties—they were really young.
TYG: Now they're in their sixties and seventies...
Andrea: So I kind of looked at them, and one of them in particular was kind of frail. I'd just quit my job marketing for the City of Yachats, because I wanted to write, and I thought, "This is my story. I want to tell this story." Because if I don't, these people are going to die off. So I began interviewing people, and I began doing some document research in the archives of the county Planning Department, and I also brought in a whole lot of other stuff like the geology of the area. You kind of talked about that. It's hard to build on, but if a tsunami hits, this area is gone. And they were going to build a nuclear power plant here once.
TYG: [stunned laughter]
TYG-GD: That was some other scheme, right?
Andrea: That was a long time ago. That was the Eugene Water and Electric Board.
TYG: Even if there were no tsunami, that's a terrible place to build a power plant!
Andrea: Well, in the 1960's, there was a big push to build nuclear power plants. Over twenty years, they were going to build twenty power plants from Eugene up to the Columbia River. That was what was going to save us all: we wouldn't have to use coal, we wouldn't have to use water power. You have to understand: Chernobyl hadn't happened, Three Mile Island hadn't happened, Fukishima hadn't happened—everybody thought this was the safest thing possible. [...] This proposal from the Eugene Water and Electric Board made people say, "Wait a minute! Let's look at this!" and EWEB said, "Oh no, it's fine, it's safe, we're just moving ahead." They got the people of Eugene to pass bonds to build this thing, and again, persistent activists in Eugene, some of whom who were professors in the physics department at the University of Oregon and had worked on the Manhattan Project building the atom bomb—they knew. They knew there was a problem with atomic power. So they got a moratorium to study this, and this [area around Ten Mile] was one of the sites that was being looked at. Finally, it was the one that EWEB chose because who cares! It's out there, and there's nobody there in 1969!
TYG: It just boggles the mind.
Andrea: Wait, it gets better... Because you know, when you create a hydro dam, there's usually a lake that's created, and there's recreation: camping, and fishing, and it supports the community around it. They wanted to do the same thing here! So the cooling lake was going to be a beautiful place for people to fish, and boat... I mean, this is radioactive water! [laughs in disbelief] And, it's on the subduction zone. [...] The activists finally put a stop to it and it was voted down, and then the state of Oregon, two years later, voted on a moratorium: there would never be nuclear power plants. [...] So, that's what happened. The property got turned over to State Parks, and it will be protected in perpetuity, and all the people got older, maybe wiser, and that's the book I wrote!
TYG: That's awesome!
TYG-GD: So, in terms of your dream of writing, are you fulfilled, or are you onto your next story?
Andrea: Well, I'm still working on marketing this. I'm doing a memoir workshop in October. But I don't know what I'm going to do next. Part of the reason I'm doing the memoir workshop is that I would like to write a book about my father, who was a compulsive gambler. But there was a secret about him in the family, something that happened when he was young. Nobody would tell me about it. I remember asking my aunt, one of his sisters, and she said she'd written a paper about him when she was getting her Master's in Education. So it had to be a juvenile thing, because she was teaching young people. And I said, "Well, can I read it?" "Oh no, you're much too young," she said. I was thirty. [laughs] So nobody would tell me. His younger brother, when I asked, he said, "Oh, there's nothing to tell. I don't want to ruin your memory of your father." Trying to get the information is really hard! If he was a juvenile, there won't even be court records if it was a crime. I have no idea! No idea what he did. So I thought about doing a fictional memoir about him. But I've got about four other novels that I've been working on, but I can't decide which one I want to pursue. This book just came out last November, so I think it's going to be around the year mark until I feel I'm done with it.
TYG-GD: How did you get into writing?
Andrea: Oh gosh, I've been writing since I was five years old. When I was little, we had to go to a birthday party dressed as what you want to be when you grow up, and I had this little shirt and shorts made of newspaper print, and I had my little camera with me...[laughs] [to the Publisher:] See, I was going to be just like you.
TYG: [laughs] Except I'm dropping this.
Andrea: Yes? Are you? Are you going to retire?
TYG: Yes, I'm dropping it at Issue 100. Because I need to go off to college!
Andrea: Yes, you do.
TYG: I'm going off to college in the fall of 2020, to OSU, engineering program.
Andrea: Very good. Well, you've done a terrific job on this. I still remember when you first started, and you had your briefcase... it was so great! And people love it! You should try to sell it—maybe somebody else will want to take it over.
TYG: I don't want to sell it! That's the thing—I want it to be done at Issue 100. That way, no one can mess up its legacy.
Andrea: Well, you've done a great job on it. So anyway, I've been writing ever since. I had one short story published when I was in high school, I think, in Ingénue Magazine—it was kind of like Seventeen. Then I did free-lance journalism, and I wrote about the coal and oil industry, because I was living in Pennsylvania and that's kind of what there was. That was interesting—I met a lot of really interesting people. A Greek shipping magnate—I met him in New York. I don't know—I like writing about different businesses because I like talking to people. And for a while I was working for the Mid-Coast Watersheds Council and writing about salmon restoration projects. I put together a newsletter for them for a year or so. And then when I was the marketing director [for Yachats] I wrote blurbs, or for Travel Oregon—they try to make things very personal, so I would write articles as if I were a tourist, like doing birding up on the Alsea Bay in Waldport, stuff like that. It was fun! So that's what I do!
TYG: Thank you very much—it's been an awesome interview!
Andrea: Thank you!
Andrea Scharf will lead a workshop on Memoir Writing at her home in the Yachats River Valley on Saturday October 12, 2019, from 9 to 4:30. The workshop is limited to ten people in order to provide individual guidance, and is appropriate for all ages and levels of writing ability. Lunch is included, with beverages and healthy snacks throughout the day. Cost to attend the one-day workshop is $125. Contact Andrea at 541-547-3092 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now in its third year, the Yachats Banner project will hold their annual auction and artist celebration October 5, 5 PM – 7 PM in the Yachats Commons.Each spring local artists volunteer to design and paint banners. This year's theme is “Where Edges Meet.” Banners are displayed along Hwy. 101 from June through September. On the first Saturday of October, they are auctioned off to support arts programs and fund the project for the following year. This year’s auction will be held on October 5th from 5 until 7 in the Commons Building in Yachats. Visit the banner auction and view the banners up close. You just may find yourself bidding for one of these beauties. For more information visit www.pollyplumb.org.