Protecting Bayocean Spit Now and for the Future

Bayocean Spit Looking North from Cape Meares.

History buffs know the fascinating story of Bayocean Spit. In 2014 an “eco-resort” was proposed by one of the private property owners on the Spit. The proposal was turned down by the Tillamook County Planning Commission, and now there is a proposal to rezone the Spit to be more protective of its vulnerable habitats — indeed the Spit itself is quite fragile. In order to understand this drama properly, it is necessary to revisit a fascinating moment in Oregon history.

The Old Resort Town of Bayocean: Rise and Disappearance
In about 1910, a high-flying real estate developer named Thomas Benton Potter and his son T. Irving Potter decided to build a glamorous resort on Bayocean Spit — the long sandspit that protects Tillamook Bay from the ocean. They dubbed it the “Atlantic City of the West,” and set about with great verve and fanfare to make their vision reality. The problem? There was no transportation to the Spit at that time, except by boat. Undeterred, the Potters formed a company (the Potter-Chapin Company) with a partner, purchased tidelands from the State of Oregon, and began building, with materials hauled in by boat. The resort town ultimately featured stores, a bakery, swimming pool, dance pavilion, two hotels and — the resort’s pride and joy — a giant “natatorium,” with a 160-foot pool of warmed seawater and artificial waves, built right in front of the dune at the foot of the sea. Wealthy guests from Portland came first by private yacht, then by railroad, to the resort.

But it didn’t last. In 1914 the surrounding towns and port districts requested the Corps of Engineers to build a jetty at the mouth of Tillamook Bay to improve shipping. They would pony up their portion of the funds. The Corps expressed doubts, saying that two jetties should be built, as one would likely have unpredictable effects on wave patterns. But the communities insisted on a single jetty, so the Corps built only one. Erosion began almost immediately, escalating from one foot a year to fifty feet a year by the 1940s. Bayocean Spit grew thinner and thinner; waves crashed across it each winter, inundating buildings; the resort dwindled away; and finally, in 1952 during a November gale, the Spit breached, and the open ocean roared into Tillamook Bay. Oyster farms were ruined, and residents feared loss of farmland, even towns. In a panic, the towns and ports provided money for a second jetty. The Corps built a breakwater in 1956, and ultimately a second jetty as well, to stabilize the mile-wide breach in the Spit. It worked, and the Spit began to rebuild itself.

Recent Development Proposals: A House, Another Resort
For sixty years since this dramatic breach, Bayocean Spit has been quietly accreting sand again. The Spit is now a wild and fragile place. No trace of the opulent resort of Bayocean remains, not even a pipe in the sand. Tillamook County received most of the private lots through tax foreclosure long ago, and the Spit is essentially a natural area, zoned Recreation Management. It is heavily used for bird-watching, walking, hunting, photography and other recreational pursuits. Technically it is a County park, but in practice, the County has no management funds to oversee public use.

A few private lots remain, and one of the largest, about 23 acres, was bought in 2008 by a Portland area developer named Dale Bernards. He wanted to develop something on his property, despite the fact that there is no sanitation infrastructure, no water, no water infrastructure, and no public road. The Corps of Engineers’ Dike Road, built by them and used principally for jetty maintenance, is not for general public use. Tillamook County regulates all other vehicles on Dike Road, allowing each landowner two keys to the gate and minimal road use. Allowing a development on the Spit would also be playing dice with public health and safety concerns, given the Spit is in the tsunami zone and far from emergency response operations.

In 2009, Mr. Bernards tried to receive approval for a “caretaker’s dwelling” as part of a farm operation. For this purpose he penned a few goats on his Spit property to prove a farm operation was possible. Tillamook County told him a house would not be permitted under Tillamook County Comprehensive Plan policies that apply to Bayocean Spit, and he never submitted a formal application.

In 2014 Mr. Bernards returned to Tillamook County. This time his company, Bay Ocean LLC, proposed an eco-resort featuring glamour camping (“glamping”) with luxury tents, horse-riding, kayaking, a marina, aquatourism, and a lab station for marine research. However, the application was extremely sketchy. Cape Meares Community Association and ORCA collaborated on research about the Spit’s history, use and infrastructure. Both organizations submitted extensive and detailed testimony opposing the resort. In January 2015, the Tillamook County Planning Commission turned down the proposal, mainly on grounds that it was not well fleshed out and did not meet the criteria for a development under the zoning that applies to the Spit.

Permanent Protection of Bayocean Spit
Bayocean Spit is zoned Recreation Management, which allows for some development, such as golf courses, a campground or perhaps a dwelling, if the criteria are met. But several zoning overlays also apply to the Spit, such as the Beaches and Dune overlay and the tsunami risk zone, which actually prohibit development in this unsuitable location. The Tillamook County Comprehensive Plan describes Bayocean Spit as an exceptional aesthetic resource to be protected.

In August 2016, the Tillamook Board of County Commissioners held a public workshop to hear public opinion about the future of Bayocean Spit. Concerned about the increasing use of the Spit and lack of County resources to manage visitor impact, the County began exploring the option of transferring its 1,000 acres of Spit lands to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. ORCA provided testimony in favor of opening negotiations for transfer of the Spit to OPRD. Negotiations would cover details such as the Spit management paradigm, details of making an even exchange, relationships with the small-scale property owners who will likely retain their lands, and options for protection of the larger privately-owned parcels. Unfortunately, OPRD at the first discussion meeting in November 2016 told the County it did not have the financial capability to take on management of the Spit, so negotiations are stalled for the time being. However, the problems on Bayocean Spit must eventually be faced head on.

Parks owns and manages most of Oregon’s sandspits, except those that are privately owned, such as Salishan Spit. This is the state agency with the greatest experience in providing and managing recreational use of the public’s property. State Parks range from high-use areas with large campgrounds to natural areas with very little recreational infrastructure. Bayocean Spit would make a perfect state natural area, with OPRD management of the visitor use to ensure Bayocean Spit is not further degraded by overuse. Since it has no infrastructure, Bayocean Spit is not a good candidate for campsites. Currently, due to lack of County resources, the Spit is somewhat neglected, as the Board of Commissioners recognized.
Please contact Executive Director Cameron La Follette for further information: