The Importance of Public Land
Contributor Rachel King discusses Alpenrose Dairy and the historic Oregon bill that made beaches public land
I’ve been following the sale of Alpenrose Dairy, a family-operated establishment in southwest Portland. I grew up a mile away, and like many children raised in Portland, attended the Storybook Lane display every holiday season and searched for eggs in the fields every Easter. In elementary school, I toured the dairy, and in high school, I acted on the stage in its opera house. Although I didn’t play softball or use the velodrome, as a child I witnessed people coming from across the state — and even the nation — to play or ride there. It was a community space, and though privately owned, the whole community will feel its loss.
In November 2021, my novel People Along the Sand was published. It is set on the 1967 central Oregon coast, centered on the passing of the Oregon Beach Bill, the legislation that made all Oregon beaches public land. Although the coast had been declared “public highway” (to prevent development) by then-Governor Oswald West in 1913, his law technically only protected the wet sands, and areas along the coast had been sold off to private property owners. The issue came to a head in the 1960s when a motel owner corded off “his" section of Cannon Beach, even as many viewed that area as public land. In 1967, the Oregon Beach Bill officially established public ownership from the water up to 16 feet above the low tide mark.
Although logistical parallels between the Beach Bill and Alpenrose Dairy are tenuous, the feeling of a communal space now off-limits seems similar. The Cadonau family owned Alpenrose for several generations, and their free events and programs —as well as their generosity in allowing dozens of organizations to use the space at low or no cost — fostered a community there. In 2019, the property was sold to the Smith Brothers, and in 2021, Westlake Lennar Consultants and Lennar Corporation submitted a proposal to build 193 houses there.
In 1966, when a few people complained that the Beach Bill — officially House Bill 1601 in the state Legislature — trampled on private property rights, it was tabled until Matt Kramer started writing a regular column about it in The Oregonian and several citizen groups spread the word about the bill and asked Oregonians to write letters in favor of it to the Legislature. In my novel, two characters, Marilyn and Leah, even go door to door encouraging others to write letters. Although I never found evidence of that specific scenario, I wouldn’t be surprised if it had happened, as overall, the general public was enthusiastic about preserving Oregon’s beaches as a communal space. By the time then-Governor Tom McCall pulled his publicity stunt 55 years ago this month, riding a helicopter down the coast and stopping at different beaches to discuss the bill, the Legislature had already received thousands of handwritten letters.
Not everyone was in favor of the bill. Many developers were opposed, and some individuals too. My novel highlights Elliot, a retired lighthouse keeper who simply wants people to stay off his beach so he can retain his solitude. But with thousands of people from all over the state in favor, the Legislature to reconsidered, and now, unlike in the vast majority of U.S. states that border a coastline, the entire coast of Oregon — all 363 miles — belongs to the public.
Last spring, I thought the fate of Alpenrose Dairy had been decided. But recently, I learned that a Friends of Alpenrose Farm group has been formed “to advocate for a balanced development.” Among its goals are to preserve the ball fields and velodrome and to conserve wetlands on the property. I imagine it will take hundreds if not thousands of concerned Oregonians from all different walks of life to make this happen — and I’m sure a journalist or a high-profile politician championing the cause wouldn’t hurt, either.
As I continue to follow the land use situation at Alpenrose, and hopefully find a way to assist in preserving a communal area there, I feel confident that our public beaches aren’t going anywhere. The Beach Bill reminds me that in Oregon, especially on land use issues, people from across the state and different political persuasions have come together to enact positive change in the past, and gives me hope that we will continue to do so in the future.