Wheeler is a tiny town of about 400 residents, which borders the Nehalem River estuary in Tillamook County. It is a picturesque place, and that is one of its great assets. But Wheeler’s waterfront happens to have a fairly large, undeveloped parcel, owned until 2016 by Tillamook County residents Vern Scovell and John Jelineo. The town is on a hill, so views from its houses, across the vacant property and into the Bay, are magnificent.
In 2007 Scovell applied to build a clustered condominium and commercial development on his bayfront property. This plan was vigorously opposed by Wheeler residents. The residents organized, got signatures and placed a measure on the Wheeler ballot in 2008 to require voter approval of annexations. It passed with 84% of the vote. Even though Wheeler City Council refused to pass an implementing ordinance requiring developers to submit detailed plans, voters could nevertheless refuse to annex any property they thought might be developed in a way that would violate Wheeler’s great asset: its unspoiled views. A new law passed in the 2017 Legislature eliminated voter annexation, which adds to the tension between city approval processes and residents.
Then there is Botts Marsh, an important saltwater marsh lying next to the shore, likewise owned by Scovell and Jelineo until 2016. Tillamook County approved an exception in 1985 that allowed Scovell to pursue building a marina there, but the exception is now so old it is essentially worthless. In 2013, the two property owners agreed to let the City apply for an Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) grant to purchase both Botts Marsh and most of the upland property for a park. In June 2014 the grant was denied a second time.
In 2016 the entire property, both the Marsh and the upland, were sold to Ken Ulbricht of Seaside. The Lower Nehalem Community Trust has acquired Botts Marsh. After decades of stalemate, this is welcome news, and ORCA strongly supports it. Plans for some kind of development on the upland acreage are still in the talking stage. ORCA hopes the new owner will prove willing to work with Wheeler residents for a development that fits the town’s vision for its future.
What Should Wheeler Look Like in the Future?
Wheeler’s residents know what their town should look like. The Wheeler Vision Report makes it clear that residents want several things: a Planned Development Ordinance that protects the small town atmosphere; a waterfront plan that emphasizes low key buildings, natural resources protection and limits on large-scale development; and a focus on green space that enhances the City. Whether or not these things happen depends on the town’s political will. In November 2012, City Council directed that the Vision Report be made a part of the Comprehensive Plan as an essential background document. This was a very positive step.
The new owner, Ken Ulbricht, is designing his plans for the property’s upland, under the company name Botts Marsh LLC. Preliminary designs include cottages and small-scale industry, as well as a park. He has not submitted a formal application to Wheeler yet. ORCA continues to work closely with residents to ensure the development will fit with the Vision Report and residents’ desires for their small town.