COOS COUNTY — After a monthlong trial, a Linn County jury ruled Wednesday that the state of Oregon breached its contract with 13 rural counties as it failed for years to maximize timber harvests on its state forests.
Thirteen counties were among those named in the lawsuit, which claimed the state didn’t fulfill its end of an agreement drafted in the late 1930s to generate timber revenue for the counties. The plaintiffs included Benton, Clackamas, Columbia, Coos, Douglas, Josephine, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, Polk, Tillamook, and Washington counties, plus local taxing districts within those counties as well as more than 100 special districts and other government entities that receive money from state forest income. Clatsop County opted out of the lawsuit, but local taxing districts within the county were part of the suit.
As a result of Wednesday’s verdict, the jury awarded the counties and taxing districts $1.06 billion for lost revenue and future damages. According to Coos County Commissioner John Sweet, counties entered the original agreement with the state anticipating those lands would be harvested.
“I was very pleased (with Wednesday’s verdict). It’s a great step forward,” said Sweet. “These lands were given over to the state years ago with the expectation that they would be harvested and that the proceeds from that harvest, which is about two-thirds of the revenue, would flow into the counties and that hasn’t happened.”
According to Sweet, about 7,000 acres of state forest lands (Oregon and California Railroad Revested lands, or commonly called O&C lands) lie within Coos County, mostly in the vicinity of the Elliott State Forest. It’s expected that the state will appeal the verdict which will delay the funds from being disbursed to the counties, Sweet added.
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“Keep in the mind it’s unlikely all the funds would go to the county,” said Sweet. “There are other taxing districts in the county that would likely share some of those funds, but I think we have to recognize that these funds are not sustainable and that they would be a one-shot thing.”
The county is estimated to receive about $38 million which would be distributed among its appropriate taxing districts.
Sweet said he hopes the funds will be spent on efforts that would generate additional revenue for the county and a flow of income year after year, such as adding more land to the county’s forest.
The decision as to how the money will be spent will ultimately be determined by the board of commissioners after careful consideration, he added. It’s unclear as to when or if the funds will be disbursed pending the state’s appeal.