A pair of new ranch owners in Southern Oregon have caused tension with their neighbors by asking for money to help rehabilitate their property—a request some in the area described as a form of "extortion."
In November, Thaddeus Gala and Rebecca Blust purchased the Billings Ranch, a 139-acre, $2.49 million property outside of Ashland, which was partially damaged by the Almeda Fire last fall. Unsure of what to do with the land, the couple announced in January a contest seeking ideas from the local community, and promised a cash prize of $2,500 for the winning concept.
Submitted ideas ranged from building affordable housing to regenerative agriculture to homes for people affected by the 2020 Oregon wildfires.
So it came as a surprise to some neighbors when Gala and Blust distributed a letter last week, which seemed to suggest that if they couldn't raise $40,000 in community contributions, the couple was considering building a motocross track on the property.
The letter caused outcry from the ranch's neighbors, many of whom felt the letter was giving them an ultimatum.
"I was livid," says Lori Calhoun, who has lived directly across from the ranch for 19 years. "It was insensitive timing, especially since there are many of us that are out of work, including myself, for the past 11 months."
In the letter, which was published in full by Jefferson Public Radio reporter April Ehrlich on Twitter, Gala and Blust wrote that while neighbors "expressed they would rather see bison, caribou, wildlife, fields, birds, irrigation for fire protection, etc., rather than something like a motocross dirt bike track out their backyard," the latter option would be cheaper and more profitable.
Irrigating and rehabilitating the land for livestock—which the couple says is their preferred plan—would cost $80,000, according to the letter.
The note then states that the landowners intend to raise half those funds from community donations, suggesting that each homeowner contribute $1,000 to the project.
"Be it $5,000, $1,000 or even $500…we appreciate any consideration as every bit gets us closer to our goal," reads the letter. "If you would prefer 'pastures over racetracks,' please send payments before Feb. 28th so we can determine which route we are going."
Craig Anderson, a neighbor and former Jackson County Developmental Services Department employee, says he became concerned over zoning rights, and because he knew the Billings family, who previously owned the ranch for over 100 years.
"Mary Billings is someone I knew," he says. "Then I read this letter, and it reads like extortion."
Speaking over the phone to WW, Gala denies that the letter was intended as an ultimatum.
"It's my property, we can do what we want," Gala says. "I look at it as a courtesy. I don't see how it can be extortion."
Gala is a licensed chiropractor, while Blust is the founder of a program called the Positive Thinking Revolution. In 2018, Gala was sanctioned by Oregon's Board of Chiropractic Examiners, which investigated claims against Gala's former company, My Diabetic Solutions. Gala was ultimately found to have engaged in unprofessional or dishonorable conduct and gross negligence in caring for his patients.
The couple bought the ranch on Nov. 23 and renamed it Medella Bison Ranch. Gala says he was aware the ranch was in need of restoration before he bought it. He says it was his neighbors who first suggested creating a more fire-resilient landscape and offered to pitch in on the cost.
But the neighbors WW spoke to were unaware of such conversations, and had no contact with Gala or Blust prior to receiving the letter.
"I have not heard one person say, 'Hey that's a great idea," says Meredith Overstreet-Page, whose property also abuts Medella Bison Ranch. "There's a way of doing that, like a GoFundMe, or go to the city council or something."
Last Thursday, Gala hosted a Zoom meeting that was attended by 60 neighbors, many of whom asked Gala to clarify whether or not he intended to build a dirt-bike park. At the end of the hourlong meeting, Gala told attendees he no longer intended to convert the property into a motocross track.
Gala now says he regrets sending the letter.
"In hindsight, for how horribly we've been treated, maybe we shouldn't have said anything," he says.
But not all of his neighbors believe this is the end of the situation.
"It's not in writing," Calhoun says, "so I don't think we've heard the last of it."