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Judge again declines to rule on 'Skinner Restriction' in city-county land swap

Does the fine print in Eugene Skinner's 1855 deed for the town square block a potential land swap involving the butterfly parking lot at 8th and Oak? (SBG)

EUGENE, Ore. - A judge again declined to rule on whether Eugene Skinner's 1855 deed for the town square directing the land be used for county seat purposes blocks Lane County from swapping the land with the City of Eugene.

The judge left open the possibility that, should the local governments bring a lawsuit against Skinner's descendents, the court could address the merits of the case.

But Judge Richard Barron wrote that, since no one opposed the proposed swap, he couldn't rule on whether the so-called "Skinner Restriction" would block the land swap.

"In the present case, there is no statute granting the court authority to hear a case that does not meet the traditional definition of a case or controversy," the judge wrote in his decision.

The City and County had brought the question back to the court after ironing out an agreement between the two governments. Barron had dismissed a similar motion a year ago.

Where does that leave the land swap?

"Judge Barron's decision, it wasn't a 'no' decision by any stretch of the imagination," County Commission Chair Pat Farr said Friday. "I don't perceive it as that. We still have our eye on the ball, and the ball is building a new City Hall and building a new Courthouse."

Ken Darling - Skinner's great-great grandson - said he is as frustrated as Judge Barron seems to be about this long legal exercise.

"Everybody would like him to just get to the deed," he said. "Let's get it over with and move on."

Darling said it's time to cut to the chase.

"They all have property. Just build on it," he said. "End of story; end of drama."

Darling dropped his legal opposition to the land swap due to the cost.

The prospect that the City or County might need to file a lawsuit against Darling and other descendents of Skinner didn't sit well with him.

"There better be a darned good reason to go to that level," he said. "I think for the citizenry, they would consider it - especially ones that were born and raised here - would consider it a shame."

In a footnote to his decision, Barron described why such a move might be necessary to reach a ruling. The "three municipalities" refers to the city, county and the urban renewal agency.

"In answer to the court’s question about why the three municipalities did not file for a declaratory Judgment against the heirs ofthose who deeded the Butterfly Lot, counsel indicated that it was considered, but they decided not to do so because any judgment rendered by the court would have been limited to the named parties only," Barron wrote. "This, of course, is true, but there would be a justiciable controversy dealing with the merits of whether the deed contained restrictions on what could be built on the property. The court is not suggesting any particular way in which the municipalities should proceed. It is up to them. The court understands the trepidation the three municipalities have about proceeding with a project involving millions of dollars and not knowing if legal challenges will be filed, but to get a decision on the merits of deed restrictions, there has to be a justiciable controversy."

And while he doesn't want it to come to that, Darling suggested the governments are missing the judge's ponit.

"They're not seeing what the judge sees is obvious: that you can't even move forward until you get the filing right," Darling said. "I think the populace is just going: could you at least do something right?"

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