A nonprofit bank announced Friday it will stop pursuing federal legislation that would have designated a three-county region along the lower Columbia River as a National Heritage Area.
Officials at Ilwaco-based ShoreBank Enterprise Cascadia said they had come to believe the proposal was unlikely to pass through Congress, and it didn't help that property owners and some local officials spoke out loudly against the plan.
SBEC had been talking with Wahkiakum, Pacific and Clatsop counties for months about trying to make the region a National Heritage Area. The designation would have opened the door for federal grants that could have been pooled with private money to create a loan fund for small businesses that help sustain the area's "heritage."
But property owners — especially those in government-wary Wahkiakum County — feared the designation also would lead to property rights restrictions in the future. Residents began pondering troubling scenarios in which they were told what color they could paint their barn, or what buildings they could construct on their land.
In a statement released Friday, SBEC didn't cite the lukewarm reception it received in Wahkiakum County as the reason for its decision to back off the proposal. Rather, the bank pointed to the Obama administration's reluctance to add more National Heritage Areas, and the likelihood that funding for the NHA program will decrease.
But contacted Friday evening, SBEC Executive Vice President Mike Dickerson said property owners' uneasiness about the proposal did factor into the decision not to keep moving forward with it.
"It did play a role in that," Dickerson said. "It doesn't make sense for us to move forward on it if the community doesn't want us to."
Dickerson tried to ease property owners' concerns about the proposal during a question and answer forum last month, saying the legislation could include wording that specifically addressed property rights, but that too was met with more skepticism from a packed room of about 50 people.
On Friday, opponents of the NHA proposal expressed relief when they heard the news.
"I think this is a victory," said Elochoman Valley resident Chuck Smith. Smith said he doesn't mind if SBEC wants to make loans to small businesses in the region, but he didn't like the idea of all county property owners unwillingly being included under a federal designation.
Puget Island resident Len Lindsley agreed.
"They just came up against a bunch of informed people and found out they can't whoop a bunch of united citizens," Lindsley said. He also said he believes a majority of Wahkiakum County residents were against the plan.
Dickerson said commissioners in Oregon's Clatsop County supported the plan. He said some Pacific County residents came out against it, but not as many as in Wahkiakum County.
Before Friday's announcement, Wahkiakum County commissioners had been split over whether to sign on to the proposal. They had scheduled two more public meetings to try and gauge what most county residents wanted. Those meetings, originally scheduled for this week and the following week, have been cancelled, Commissioner Lisa Marsyla said.
Marsyla said she'd been researching the pros and cons of creating a heritage area and waiting to hear what residents had to say at the upcoming meetings.
"I was still open to it," she said. "I hadn't made a decision."
Marsyla wondered whether the opponents who showed up at recent commissioners meetings actually represented the views of the county, or if they were simply a vocal minority.
When asked about the plan Wednesday, Commissioner Dan Cothren said he was against it. He said he too worried about future property rights regulations.
"I couldn't live with myself if these people lost some freedoms," Cothren said. "And I just don't see a lot of people benefitting from this."
Cathlamet Mayor George Wehrfritz said he understands why some may be wary of the federal government. Yet he's baffled by the reaction to what he sees as a harmless proposal aimed at giving the county an economic boost.
"We are in such an anti-government moment," Wehrfritz said earlier this month. "I'm amazed this little project could be interpreted as some deep, dark scheme to take people's property."
Dickerson said SBEC will continue with its goal of investing in the region's entrepreneurs. The bank plans to commit $1 million of SBEC resources to create a heritage-focused investment fund.
"We are committed to demonstrating the approach to rural economic development based on heritage that was proposed in the study," Dickerson said.