Of seatbelts and Dom's thwarted dream

"Lifelong Ashland resident and business advocate Dom S. Provost died Thursday "¦ He was 81."

— The Tidings, July 21, 2009

Reading about Dom in Tuesday's paper reminded me of last week's column, when I described my brief tailspin after receiving a $97 ticket for leaving my seatbelt unbuckled. On the slight chance that the connection between the two isn't obvious, here's what struck me.

My internal conversation after getting nabbed for not buckling up had to do with the tension between supporting a law in the abstract but not when it's applied to me — harmless, responsible, well-intentioned me. My one significant experience with Dom, now 20 years past, brought up the same tension. One of Dom's friends said in Tuesday's article that "he was a great gentleman. He never said an unkind word about anyone." If there were exceptions to that habit, I may have been one.

I was on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners when Dom submitted his hotly contested application in 1988 to build Clear Springs Resort on the way to Emigrant Lake. It was an ambitious vision — a first-class golf course surrounded by high-end homes and vacation rental units, shops and outdoor features to delight the tourist's eye — supported by most of the business community and opposed by neighbors and some who thought the city would be dragged into providing municipal services like water and sewer.

There was no possible way to get this done under the land-use system Oregon established in 1973, with its emphasis on protecting agriculturally zoned land like Dom's from development. But as the state looked beyond the timber economy and ripened for tourism, the Legislature approved what was called an "exceptions process" specifically for destination resorts.

That's what Dom had in mind for Clear Springs. His biggest hurdle was the property's location. To prevent destination resorts from becoming a backdoor way to expand cities out onto resource lands, the law required them to be sited many miles away from any town with more than 10,000 residents. Dom's acreage was much too close to Ashland to qualify, but the law said that if it met another set of conditions, mostly to prove that the land had minimal agricultural value, it could be considered. Which led to reams of material from specialized experts to support Dom's plan.

I'll spare you the mind-numbing details of this application, and its winding path from planning department to commissioners to state appeal board and back again, most of which I don't remember anyway. During my tenure I think we handed down three rulings on the application in a two-year period. I voted "no" twice. My judgment at the time was that the soil analysis Dom had commissioned started with a conclusion — that the property fit the exact minimum requirements to qualify as a destination resort — and cherry-picked evidence to support it.

Which wasn't what my two colleagues on the board thought. They didn't try to convince me that the application met the legal requirements. What they said was closer to, "This whole thing is kind of a gray area, isn't it, and seeing what substantial members of our community are behind it, how much work they've done to meet the requirements and to be sure no damage is done, and how much healthy economic activity could come out of it — well, why not?" Which lined up well with the resentment many felt back then over Salem's clout in Rogue Valley land use decisions.

Why not? I thought about asking the municipal judge that question about giving me a warning instead of a fine for my seatbelt ticket. Turns out the answer's similar. Put together all the well-meaning drivers like me whose momentary seatbelt spaceout poses almost zero chance of troubling anyone else, and you have a nation spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars more than necessary to scrape human flesh off the highway. Put together all the well-meaning developers like Dom whose project has almost zero chance of troubling anyone else (though his neighbors at the time disagreed fiercely) and you can have a Southern Oregon that looks and feels more like Southern California all the time, endless pavement, terminally stupid traffic patterns and all. We've decided, through the political process, to avoid both these outcomes (and if we want to decide differently, we can). The applicable laws are less than perfect, but when they're blown off with a fuzzy why not, they don't work for us at all.

Dom, your son said in the article that you always put community first. I believe that. And I imagine that helped drain the bitterness from your disappointment at a dream never realized.

Thanks for what you gave this town.

Jeff Golden is the author of "Forest Blood," "As If We Were Grownups" and the novel "Unafraid" (with excerpts available at www.unafraidthebook.com).

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