Sunriver Resort is located in eastern Oregon; 130 miles drive south of Portland, 20 miles west of the Cascade Mountains and on the edge of Oregon’s high desert environment. It has all the geography of a mountain environment, but the climate of the high desert.
Sunriver will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary. People are passionate about the essence of Sunriver and the balance that exists between the environment and man. The attraction of Sunriver is the balance that is struck between respecting nature and the many ways for man for to enjoy nature, through proper planning by man.
In 1965, Donald V. McCallum, a Portland attorney, and John D. Gray, founder of Omark Industries, bought the original 5,500 acres and planned to build a luxury resort on it. Their idea was to create a resort and residential community with a focus on maintaining the integrity of the environment, including creating a finite number of home sites.
Sunriver is a place people care about, but not simply as another resort town. Opened in 1968, it is one of very few planned communities (resort or otherwise) that were originally designed around strict environmental principles: how the streets are built, how the buildings are laid out, how open space is incorporated, how the community’s government works, and how everything down to the utilities and the street signs were decisions made with the environment in mind.
The allure of Sunriver for residents and visitors was, and is, the area’s natural beauty, and therefore this aesthetic element was emphasized and preserved in Sunriver’s design.
Sunriver Resort offers a variety of accommodations, including luxury guest rooms and suites, as well as 400 vacation rental properties. The resort is home to three famous golf courses: Meadows, Woodlands, and Crosswater. Crosswater, named one of “America’s 100 Greatest Courses” by Golf Digest, and is the new home of the JELD-WEN Tradition, a major championship on the Champions Tour played in August. The Meadows golf course was designed by acclaimed architect John Fought and the Woodlands golf course was designed by the renowned architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr.
Today, Sunriver has grown to 4,200 residences, 1,500 full time residents, and a peak of 15,000 people at any one time, making it one of the most popular vacation spots in the Northwest. Besides its beauty, Sunriver benefits by its location between the two tourist populations of Portland and the Bay Area.
Sunriver was founded as a community where “Man and Nature would coexist” and this premise became a focus for the developers. Robert Royston of Royston, Hanamoto, Alley & Abey (RHAA) was Sunriver’s main designer. Jim Anderson, Sunriver’s first Resident Naturalist, became the major environmental drivers in Sunriver’s planning and development worked hand in glove with Royston in creating the plan.
Royston and Anderson created the regulations to protect the environment during the original planning of Sunriver. These regulations, which blend the built and natural environments of Sunriver together, are maintained today. The Nature Center is an environmental education center that has been in Sunriver since its inception and is used as an educational tool to share the meaning of the environment in Sunriver.
As one walks along the 35 miles of bike paths or hikes throughout Sunriver, one can see that the trees and natural vegetation were preserved whenever possible, and if scrub was destroyed it was replaced with more native plants. Being a fly fisherman, I can say that any new construction has been done in way not to harm the waterways. Under Royston and Anderson’s direction, you can clearly see that the ethos is that the environment should be improved upon, not wiped away. This thinking has made Sunriver quite distinct.
In 1993, the current owners, Sunriver Resort Limited Partnership, headed by Lowe Enterprises, began an extensive capital improvement program to bring the Oregon resort gracefully into the 21st century. Since then, Sunriver has become the Pacific Northwest’s finest resort community, offering the very high quality in Oregon hotel rooms and vacation rentals, resort activities, amenities, and facilities, while retaining all the very best traditions of the past. With a strong emphasis on preserving its natural surroundings, Sunriver has realized a unique balance between development and nature. It has created a place in Oregon where many come to visit on vacations to the Pacific Northwest and the lucky ones come to stay.
When you drive, bicycle or walk throughout Sunriver, you are impressed with how much Royston understood environmental design. Clearly, he looked at Sunriver as a whole, not as a subdivision of individual lots. Sunriver’s planning group did more than pay lip service to protecting the environment. The Deschutes River is the center point of Sunriver. Everyone has access to it because of the ban against building on the riverbanks. Instead, walking trails and bike paths wind along its banks with benches strategically situated to enjoy the view. Visitors can rent canoes, kayaks, and rafts and float along its length. It is the river and the sun that people come to visit in Sunriver.
Within Sunriver, the most memorable open space is the Great Meadow. At 500 acres, the meadow is significant. It is a space, surrounded by forest on all other sides, which frames the view of Mt. Bachelor. Besides the river, the views are the other most important resource of Sunriver and the meadow is integral to the image of Sunriver. Royston created a plan where—no building, no structure of any kind—would break this view and the sweep of open space to the mountains. It is so dramatic that when you experience the view it creates a profound feeling.
Another important open space is Lake Aspen, located on the edge of the Great Meadow. This lake, partially man-made out of the quiet creek called Sunriver, is preserved today as a wildlife refuge. In the majority of developments, a body of water like this would have been devoted to recreational uses. The fact that it was preserved for nature makes the positive impact greater than the sum of its parts.
Again, although there are homes with views of Lake Aspen, there are no homes on the lake. Instead it is a place for birds and aquatic animals and enjoyed by residents and visitors alike. By preserving the environment in the right places and in the right way, the planners made Sunriver a very special place. Without this thought and community’s strict design principles, Sunriver would have become just been another subdivision.
The last important natural resource in Sunriver is Sunriver’s trees. The trees camouflage the buildings, giving the community the illusion of being lost in the pine scented forest even though 8,000-15,000 people may be in town on a given summer day. You can tell that there was a clear goal to have no structure allowed to visually dominate the landscape. It is written into past and present design rules that no tree can be removed, from private property or otherwise, without Sunriver Owner’s Association approval. I can attest to the fact that there are more trees at Sunriver today than when I first came here twenty-five years ago. They are “managing” the trees by properly trimming and thinning trees on the one hand and they are planting young seedlings.
Every condo or home that I have rented has been camouflaged. You can see this with all houses. Besides the rules surrounding tree removal, most houses have a border, or buffer, of “common area.” This land is communally owned by the residents through the SROA and contains the native vegetation of lodge pole pines, ponderosa pines, sagebrush, and bunch grass. This helps preserve the natural look of the forest.
In addition, all construction is done under strict building and paint codes. Regulations cover everything from landscaping, to garages, fencing, decks, exterior colors, windows, air conditioners, signs, flags, and setbacks. Most of the houses have a similar look of traditional architecture, though a few modern houses snuck in and stick out rather oddly. All the approved paint colors are in the ranges of gray, green, and brown to blend into the trees—no pink or blue here. These restrictions really work. Although lots are usually only one fourth to one third of an acre in size, a street rarely feels overcrowded.
Residents of Sunriver have a love-hate relationship with the community’s roads and intersections. Everywhere possible, the roads wind around, sometimes even splitting into two separate lanes of pavement to go around a tree and reconnect on the other side. All the major intersections are large roundabouts, called circles. They are large enough, at about 150 feet across, and filled with enough trees that the other side cannot be seen while driving around one. This design feature can drive regular visitors and residents crazy trying to drive from one side of Sunriver to the other in a limited amount of time, winding around streets and circles at 25mph. This feature is very compatible with the overall feel of Sunriver. Who would want to come to such a beautiful place and not slow down? Besides the slowing of cars, the circles result in drivers stopping much less, saving energy lost to breaking and the following acceleration. In this way the circles make Sunriver a quieter and more energy efficient place. There are no traffic lights or four-way stops in Sunriver thanks to the circles.
As mentioned earlier, the community has 35 miles of paved bike paths, and early on claimed to be the bike capital of the country. The paths are completely separate from the roads—no bike lanes here—and have their own directional signs and maps. Every place in Sunriver can be safely reached by bike path, and in some cases in a more direct route than by car. In addition to helping link the community together and encouraging people to be outside, it is another example of the environmental influence in Sunriver’s planning. The bike paths keep the air clean and force visitors and residents to experience their surroundings outside the bubble of a car—a break from the urban experience. Everyday, I would take a walk on the bike paths. I have found people to be so friendly. To a person, you hear “good morning.” Good planning creates this feeling and environment.
Even the basic utilities were designed with the environment in mind. Sunriver uses a “Tertiary Waste Water Treatment Plant.” The reclaimed water from it is stored in the two golf courses’ ponds and used to irrigate the greens. Superb drinking water is provided from local wells and is consumed directly with no treatment required. In addition, all power lines are buried underground to perpetuate Sunriver’s forest feel. Sunriver is a place where man is working with nature, not fighting it.
Another important department in Sunriver is the Department of Environmental Services. It is in charge of most of the environmental maintenance and restoration of Sunriver, and its mission is to strike a balance between human needs and the needs of a healthy, vigorous forest.
One important aspect of the Environmental Services Department is the permit system. The removal, or even alteration, of any vegetation on private property or in common areas requires a free permit so SROA can make sure the environment is not being harmed. The department is also in charge of ladder-fuel reduction for wildfire prevention— that is the clearing out of any dry or dead brush or lower branches that would facilitate a fire to climb into the tree canopy. This can be a very big job with such an enmeshed urban-forest environment like that of Sunriver. They also manage the open spaces, like the Great Meadow, and keep an eye on noxious weeds and mountain pine beetle (a pest common in the west that can, if established, wipe out whole forests). Wildlife, mosquito control, invasive species, or anything natural and outside becomes the Environmental Department’s concern.
For anyone that is participating in the master planning a resort or suburban community, or would just like to enjoy a beautiful natural environment, with a great master plan and excellent on-going execution, I can highly recommend Sunriver, Oregon.