SEASIDE — Attention is once again focused on the proposed Necanicum Estuary Natural History Park, and Mill Ponds Park will be the first site included in the project.

The Estuary Technical Committee, created last spring, held an open house at the Mill Ponds Park recently to ask people how they would want to see a natural history park develop there.

“We want to make sure people understand the legacy this site has,” Justin Cutler, a member of the committee, told the approximately 20 people who attended the open house.

The idea of a Necanicum Estuary Natural History Park has been discussed for more than a decade, and four years ago, a plan was created for the park. The 83-square-mile Necanicum watershed would provide the boundaries for the park, which would run beyond the city limits, from the top of the mountain ridges on the east to the ocean on the west. Thompson Falls northeast of Seaside, a proposed “tsunami park” trail along the ridgeline and the Circle Creek wetland southwest of the city also are proposed to be included.

In addition to the mill ponds, the landscape would include the Necanicum Estuary and 28-mile-long river, the Neawanna River, at least 10 creeks, the ocean, mud flats, waterfalls and even a prehistoric underwater canyon.

Seaside Public Works Director Neal Wallace said the goal is to make the mill ponds more like a natural park without developing the area.

The area contains two ponds; one is fed by freshwater springs, and the other is influenced by tidal saltwater from the ocean through Neawanna Creek. The Mill Ponds Park will be one site along what eventually will become the Necanicum Estuary Natural History Park, a project that is being developed in phases. The project’s mission statement is to make Seaside “a city within a park.”

Six stations were set up around the approximately 20-acre Mill Ponds Park, and those attending the open house answered survey questions specific to the different locations: the peninsula, the north peninsula, the natural bridge, the forest walk and two grassy, open areas.

The questions on the survey included:

• What do you observe from this station location?

• What do you like about this location?

• If you have been to this location before, what have you done here?

• What is important to you to preserve at this park and why?

• What type of rules should govern this park?

Members of the committee were at most of the sites to answer questions and hear comments from participants. Necanicum Watershed Council Coordinator Melyssa Graeper, a committee member, said the purpose of the open house was not to influence the public with ideas generated by the committee but to gather personal opinions from attendees.

“We wanted to really allow the public at this meeting to share their own thoughts,” Graeper said.

The committee did present a few ideas, such as making one of the locations at the park more handicap-accessible, constructing bird blinds for bird watching and creating cleaner trails.

Several different options for bird blinds at two of the locations were presented. It is important the structures are not an “eyesore,” but blend into the natural environment and give people a better opportunity to observe one of the more than 90 species of birds previously spotted at the site, said Jeremy Goldsmith, a committee member.

One of the participants’ suggestions included making the area a bit more secluded, or building up the tree line near the western side of the park to better block the view of businesses along U.S. Highway 101.

Others talked about the importance of bringing more awareness to the area and making the park a place people can enjoy but that doesn’t disrupt the natural environment.

North Coast Land Conservancy Executive Director Katie Voelke, also a committee member, said finding the balance between making the park open to the public but also preserving the site is the estuary committee’s goal as well. The committee is looking for “ways to protect and share it all at the same time,” she said.

The group is considering different ways to present and integrate into the design of the park the evolution and history of the mills ponds, which were the site of a round-rock quarry and later the site of alder board and cedar shake mills. The area now is a natural resource of Seaside and under the protection of the city and the land conservancy.

The question remains: “What’s the way in which we can best deliver that information without taking away from the natural experience while walking around the pond?” Voelke said.

Besides Cutler, Voelke, Graeper and Goldsmith, the nine-member Estuary Technical Committee includes Pam Bierly, the at-large citizen representative; Dick Basch, of the Clatsop-Nehalem Confederated Tribes; Jay Barber, of the Seaside City Council; Jon Rahl, director of the Seaside Visitors Bureau; and Suzanna Kruger, of the Seaside School District. The representatives’ respective agencies have expressed interest in being partners for the Necanicum Estuary Natural History Park project.

The committee will hold a second public house before the end of the year. That event will provide an opportunity for attendees to influence the natural history park’s design.

“We’ll have synthesized the public’s input, along with the partners’ input,” Graeper said.

The committee also will consult with the Seaside City Council and the city’s Park Advisory Committee for guidance and to share and receive ideas for the project’s direction.

A third public open house, at a date to be determined, will be the time to unveil a more finalized plan and talk about ways individuals can volunteer.

The committee hopes to propose a design for the mill ponds to the council within a year. The process of developing the Mill Ponds Park will then serve as a template for the creation and improvement of other sites along the Necanicum Estuary Natural History Park as the larger project moves forward.

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