Mayoral candidate and city clash over park

Moore Park in downtown Ontario is at the epicenter of a dispute between local contractor and mayoral candidate Riley Hill and the city. Hill wants the city to agree to a buffer zone between the park and any marijuana business. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

ONTARIO – Developer Riley Hill, a candidate for Ontario mayor, is threatening to take back a downtown park property if the city doesn’t protect it from marijuana businesses.

Hill built Moore Park on South Oregon about 20 years ago and gave it to the city under a $1-a-year lease. The park long held a replica of a covered wagon and is the site of Ontario’s Saturday Market.

The lease between Hill and the city for the park expired in May. Hill said Thursday that if the city does not agree to a 1,000-foot buffer between the park and a marijuana dispensary in a new lease, he will take the park back.

Hill said the choice for the Ontario City Council is simple.

“The council can decide if they want a park or pot,” said Hill.

He said he used his own money and time to build the small park.

On Tuesday, the council voted 4-2 to impose new zoning for potential marijuana retailers. The ordinance, which faces one more city council vote, contains a 1,000-foot buffer zone between marijuana dispensaries and city-owned parks.

The ordinance also sets a 350-foot buffer between dispensaries and other business in the downtown area.

The city is putting such zoning in place to be ready if local voters on Nov. 6 repeal the Ontario ban on recreational marijuana outlets.

The two privately owned parks – Moore Park and a small park maintained by Union Pacific at the old Ontario Depot – are not included in the new ordinance. Hill said he didn’t agree with the city’s move to separate the two privately-owned parks from its zoning ordinance.

“I don’t know what they are doing,” said Hill.

Mayor Ron Verni said the two private parks weren’t included in the zoning because the owners could elect not to renew the leases.

“Instead of putting a buffer around something that may not exist we just took them out of the parks we own,” said Verini.

Verini said Hill’s message is clear.

“He is saying if we want to use Moore Park, there cannot be any pot dispensaries around the park. If there is, he is going to terminate his lease,” said Verini.

Hill said if there is no lease in place, he’s not otherwise obligated to keep the park.

“It can just be a bare piece of land,” said Hill.

A 1,000-foot buffer around Moore Park would eliminate marijuana dispensaries from most of downtown.

Adam Brown, Ontario city manager, said a buffer around the park in an agreement with Hill won’t keep dispensaries out of the downtown area.

“We can put in his lease but if it is legal to do downtown we don’t have the ability to reject someone else’s request based on a lease stipulation,” said Brown.

Brown said Hill could transfer ownership of the park to the city and that would be one way to end the dispute.

Hill said Moore Park is part of the city’s master plan, which indicates the city intended to acquire the park at some point.

He said he would “entertain” an offer from the city to buy the park. Hill said the last time the park was apprised – about 10 years ago – it had a price tag of nearly $95,000.

Brown said the council will tackle the issue at its meeting next Tuesday.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.