Jean Edwards: A study in urban reserve farming

Carla Axtman

Jean Edwards: A study in urban reserve farming

Jean Edwards

Jean Edwards is a blueberry farmer, fish biologist and landowner who has lived on her 48 acres in Washington County since 1979. "That was quite a commute when we first started", Edwards said, "We were way out in the sticks back then."

In recent years, roadways, housing developments and shopping centers have crept closer and closer to Edwards' farm. The property that she and her husband own is now just off a main arterial that moves cars on and off the Sunset Highway. Tiny, rural Scotch Church Road runs along one side of the farm and is now a busy shortcut for cars and trucks speeding to circumvent the long stoplight at the North Plains overpass on to the freeway.

All nine farms along Scotch Church Road banded together to testify to the Washington County Commission and Metro against having their property placed into urban reserves. All nine of them lost those battles.

Just east of Edwards farm lies Jackson School Road, the arterial that routes traffic on and off the freeway. Farmers working the rich and fertile land on the southern side of the freeway along that stretch are in a tough spot. "The traffic makes it difficult to farm," Edwards said. "Its really tough to move that big equipment when the road is so busy."

Edwards and her husband grow blueberries on six of their acres. They belong to a co-op that has a processing plant in Gresham. She says their berries are stored and picked up in North Plains and shipped to Gresham for processing. The big, nice-looking berries are packaged and shipped fresh, mostly to California where demand for them is high. Edwards and her husband are also considering more local markets for the fresh berries. The smaller berries go in for juicing, jams, syrups, etc. In other words, their farming operation is helping to provide jobs in Oregon.

11 acres are rented out to another farmer who rotates growing wheat and alfalfa on the land. The rest of the land is either timber or large swaths of drain fields/ponds and riparian area for the heavy amount of water that comes down to their land and into McKay Creek, which runs along their property border.

The drainage issue is one of the major reasons Edwards fought so hard against the urban reserve designation for their land. Water runs down from developed areas in the region, especially from the east. Edwards and her husband have built a patchwork series of culverts and dams surrounded by vegetation on their land in order to filter out the impurities from upstream before the water moves into McKay Creek. If their land is developed, all that work will be for naught, says Edwards.

Edwards also noted that the farms all along their road have a filtering effect, improving water quality for the urban regions downstream. They're also working with Oregon State University on crop development for berries from Kamchatka and Russia called Hascap. They hope to test market the product going forward.

Edwards said she doesn't expect their placement in urban reserves to impact them immediately. But she's frustrated by the lack of vision by county government. "You have a lot of infill in downtown Hillsboro", she said. "Lots of vacant blocks". Edwards wondered aloud to me why there wasn't a greater focus on urbanizing areas in the existing parts of Washington County that are already urbanized.

She also said that she wasn't sure what would happened to their tax status if their land is brought into the Urban Growth Boundary. Edwards says that there are tax benefits to being farmland and running an active farm and they're uncertain how that will change things with urbanization. "It's very fuzzy", she said.

Edwards also noted that they came into the urban and rural reserves process very late (something I've heard consistently from people whose Washington County land is impacted by Commission policy). Edwards said, "We weren't really following it or paying attention." Edwards and her neighbors found out about the potential change in their land's status from members of Save Helvetia, rather than Washington County government.

"The quality of life issue here, it's not just jobs", Edwards said, "People come here because it's beautiful. It's rural beauty". Edwards then sighs and says, "The 'city father' types don't always see it that way".

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    "If their land is developed, all that work will be for naught, says Edwards."

    If they own their land it will be developed only if they chose to develop it or sell it to a developer. Am I missing something here?

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    Carla, a few questions -

    It sounds like they are taking advantage of agricultural rates for taxes. Their taxes shouldn't go up unless the value of their land goes up. Is she worried that the land will increase so greatly in value that she will no longer be able to afford to live there? Ag land is taxed at a lower rate than something like rural residential, although if you have rural residential zoned land you can get the ag rate for property taxes by placing the land into production and showing a certain income threshold on it. At least that's the way it is in Clackamas county, I wouldn't think that Washington county would be too much different, but perhaps it is.

    Also, and I haven't looked at Washington county's reserves maps, but did the county place areas in the urban reserves that would be suitable for industrial development? I sat on Clackamas county's policy advisory committee for the reserves process, and one of the key issues we looked at was land suitable for commercial/industrial development. Housing can happen on almost any kind of land/topography, but for commercial/industrial development, the criteria for what type of land is feasable are much more narrow.

    To the public input issue and people knowing what went on in the process, I don't know how much outreach that Washington county did during the reserves process. I do know that there were public open houses in all 3 counties, and I think all of the committee meetings in all 3 counties as well as the regional steering committee were open to the public. There were also some articles in the Capital Press, the agriculture newspaper, the Oregonian ran articles about the process, etc., so there was actually quite a lot of information out there on the process. One of the things I heard often from a fair number of people when I'd bring up the topic of the reserves process was that they weren't interested in attending any of the meetings, or in the process in general, which took me aback at first, especially given the potential impact one designation or another might have on the person's property. But then I remember how I was up untill several years ago, and I can understand their position.

    I don't know but that people have lots of reasons for not becoming involved in/with government. I know I did. Apathy, the belief that no matter what you do, government's going to do what ever it wants to you anyway (which is true sometimes, but not all the time), or just being too busy. There were a lot of people in Clackamas county who weren't happy with the end result of our reserves process either, and we had a lot of public input. We had fairly good public attendance at the meetings at the begining of the process, and the public input and attendance got better every month, and it still seemed to do not much good.

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    "The quality of life issue here, it's not just jobs", Edwards said, "People come here because it's beautiful. It's rural beauty".

    The flip side of that being that people can't come here, or can't stay, without jobs. To what extent does Ms. Edwards expect that others can enjoy this "rural beauty" without jobs? I get that paving over paradise means paradise is destroyed, but does Ms. Edwards get that paying lower taxes on her property because it is a farm is essentially the equivalent of loads of county residents (including the unemployed lucky enough still to be getting checks) subsidizing her personal paradise while struggling to make a living?

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    Hi all- A bit of my interview points were not quite correctly reported. I am not confused about the tax status, my husband is a tax advisor. My main beef was with preserving rural lands so they are accessible to city people (the current situation) and natural habitat accessible to city folks. I believe that companies and employees locate here specifically because of the proximity to rural experiences. Preserving these lands from development supports jobs, in my view. I like the model I've seen in parts of Europe, where city limits are quite defined, distinct from towns and urban areas. I think that's what Metro and our land use laws are tarying to do. It's good for water quality, natural resources and really adds to quality of life for everyone. And there are good paying jobs out here in farming. Why trade one thriving industry for the 'promise' of another (e.g. semi-conductors or whatever these plants are making)? Now, after work, folks in town can jump on their bike, take a walk, take a short car trip and they are quickly in the country. Lots of people from the local towns do so every day out here. I feel like a steward of the land and water.

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