Questions on urban reserves: answered.

Carla Axtman

A few answers to the complex questions of why being a farmer stuck in urban reserves (especially in Washington County) a word: sucks.

Last week, I published a story about Jean Edwards, a blueberry farmer whose land had been placed in urban reserves. Edwards and her neighbors had protested having their land designated this way and expressed concerns about what it would do to their ability to farm and keep their land for agriculture.

Several Blue Oregon readers asked some really great follow-up questions in comments to the post. Instead of answering them myself, I sent the questions to Cherry Amabisca, a farmer in Washington County who is active with the pro-agriculture group Save Helvetia. Cherry has been neck-deep in the Urban and Rural Reserves process for Washington County and has an outstanding working knowledge of the issues.

The first comment came from Mitch Gore:

f 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?

Cherry answers: Technically, that is correct. But, there are other factors that come into play. First, as properties around farms are sold to developers, the prices go up greatly. Property taxes go up accordingly for the entire neighborhood, making it more expensive for farmers. But worse, because the price per acre has increased so much, farmers cannot afford to expand their operations unless they move out of the area totally, making it more difficult to supply local food. For example, the price of farmland per acre north of Highway 26 has gone up about 500% in the last 12 years because developers have bought parcels with the intent of subdividing. In the Jackson School Road area, prices per acre were $3,500 twelve years ago; now they are at least $21,000. In the Valley Vista Road area, they are about $26,000 an acre. Another example is that we have many young people who want to buy land to create CSA's - with the inflated price of farmland caused by developers they cannot afford it.

Once a developer buys land near farmland, several things happen. If they develop it, then the adjacent farmers have to contend with residential neighbors who complain about noise, dust, farm equipment, etc. Even though the farm was there first, when this collision happens, the farmer usually loses out. Second, many times the developer lets the land stay fallow, waiting for a better market, to get financing, etc. Because the developer never intended to farm it in the first place, he doesn't understand the impact on the adjacent farms when fields are not mowed and allowed to go to seed. In the West Union area north of Highway 26, there are fields now owned by developers who bought out farmers and are holding the fields for future use. The noxious weeds from these fields blow onto adjacent farmlands, contaminating their seed crops. The farmers then have to spend extra money to "clean" the seeds, their crop "purity" is downgraded and they get less money for their crops. Some noxious weeds, like Canada thistle, can stay in the ground for over 20 years, contaminating crops every year. Many noxious weeds can travel for several miles to adjacent farms.

The effect of an area being designated as Urban Reserves or Undesignated is very worrying to farmers. In the area north of Highway 26, we have seen speculators buying out farmers with the expectation that a particular piece of land will be included in the Urban Reserves and thus be ripe for development soon. We have cases where speculators bought land in the last two years, and, now that it was designated as Rural Reserves, they are petitioning with their attorneys to have the designation changed to Urban Reserves. Unfortunately, the price per acre is now at the higher price paid by the developer, ratcheting up the price per acre and making it impossible for farmers to buy additional land to farm.

And this series from Joanne Rigutto (snipped for brevity):

"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?"

"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."

Cherry answers: Property taxes in Washington County are based on an average sales price for properties in a particular neighborhood. If there are sales to developers at high prices in a particular area, all the property taxes for that neighborhood are increased as the average goes up. Even if a farmer has a farm deferral, property taxes will increase based on the higher sales price.

Washington County placed almost one third of its available EFU land into urban reserves before reducing it after a lot of pressure. For example, they placed over 10,000 acres of foundation farmland north of Highway 26 all the way from Highway 26 to the foothills of the Tualatin Mountains because it was flat and near the freeway. Their main criteria appeared to be they wanted 100 acre lots to be able to offer as industrial sites to high-tech companies.

Regarding citizen involvement in the reserves process, my opinion is that it was considerably different in Multnomah and Clackamas Counties than in Washington County. Clackamas County had a Policy Advisory Committee that included citizens (about 14?) Clackamas also had citizen representatives from 4 CPO's and 3 hamlets on their committee. Multnomah County had a Citizens Advisory Committee that included 19 citizens. Washington County' s advisory committee was the Planning Directors, a group of city planning directors under the leadership of the county planning department. THeir meetings were closed to the public. They advised the Washington County Reserves Coordinating Committee, which was comprised of city mayors with 12 votes and had one voting position shared by two members of the Washington County Farm Bureau, and no citizens. Yes, Washington County offered open houses, press releases, postcard mailings, etc. The INPUT they got in testimony at hearings and in letters from citizens was overwhelming in favor of rural reserves but because the voting members of the RCC were mayors who wanted to EXPAND their cities, Washington County ended up with an enormous amount of urban reserves. Save Helvetia was formed because a group of residents went to the first open house and were astounded to see their entire area mapped out as urban reserves by the county showing a town center and light rail running through working farms without any involvement by citizens in the planning process. Save Helvetia members testified before LCDC in October, 2009, about how Washington County did not follow Goal 1 and did not follow the Public Involvment Plan for the Urban and Rural Reserves process.

And then from Michael Moore, who I'm answering myself:

The flip side of that (it's not just jobs but rural beauty that brings people here) 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?

Carla replies: Except that the Edwards Farm is creating jobs. Someone has to pick those berries, that provides income and jobs for the Edwards'. Someone else has a job because they lease farmland from the Edwards. Others have jobs directly related to their farm in the way of berry storage, shipping and processing. All of these are Oregon jobs, too. The berry storage is in North Plains. The shipping from North Plains to Gresham (where the berries are processed) is all in-state.

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    To clarify my point. In the original article, the text I was responding to was this:

    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.

    I understand the conflicts of differing priorities and issues when development and farm land collide which Cherry Amabisca speaks about, but it still seems that there is some very disconnected assertions made by Jean Edwards in the part of the article I quoted above.

    Their land is not going to be developed unless they sell, period. So the assertion is self-defeated on its face. Nor is the water impurity improvements they made on their own property going to be removed unless they sell and the land is developed.

    Unless she is claiming that nearby developed land will cause such an increase is polluted run-off as to overwhelm the capacity of their culvert and damn improvements, which seems a little suspect, her assertions don't seem to hold water (pun noted)… if that is indeed what she was trying to convey in the first place.

    The claims about noxious weeds by not yet developed land which Cherry puts forward seems like another highly suspect claim. The adjacent land is already undeveloped and uncultivated so the specter of nearby intrusive plants (i.e. weeds) can not be taken as a serious issue because they are already present in untouched undeveloped land. A developer purchasing land but has not yet bullet on it already has intrusive plants in vast abundance in its untouched state.

    The upward bending of the property tax curve because of surrounding improved properties may have some merit. I would be sympathetic to addressing that issue with reformulating the math on how farm-use land property tax values are assessed in a way that de-links them from developed residential or commercial land values.

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      Cherry Amabisca wanted to reply to Mitch here, but she doesn't have a Facebook acct, so here's her reply which she sent to me via email:

      I would like to respond to Mitchell Gore's comment that noxious weeds are not a serious issue because they already exist on property bought by developers. Before land is purchased by developers, it is farmland. In fact, pretty much the only way farmers buy additional farmland in Washington County is from other farmers because there is no "new" land available. So, farmers either sell to other farmers at farmer-friendly prices or they sell to developers at inflated prices. (Source: Matt Furrow of Furrow Farms on West Union Road, who farms 285 acres of Christmas trees, hazelnut trees, cattle).

      So, if a farmer sells a parcel to another farmer, it continues being farmed, seamlessly. If a farmer sells a parcel to a developer who is not ready to develop it yet, one of two things happen. The developer/speculator find a farmer who is willing to lease the property and farm it until the developer wants to develop it - thus allowing the developer to get a farm deferral and reduce property taxes OR they let it go fallow, causing noxious weeds to propagate. Alan Shaaf of Schaaf Farms farms over 1400 acres in multiple parcels near the urban growth boundary at West Union Road. Mr. Schaaf produces over one million pounds of turf seed annually and experiences seed contamination from noxious weeds that blow from across West Union Road from the fields that used to be farmed but were sold to developers and have not been developed. Traffic coming from urban areas also brings microscopic noxious weed seeds (there are at least 6 locally that are a problem) in the dust on tires, contaminating the purer crops in rural areas. Mr. Schaaf testified to the effects of trying to farm next to urban reserves and the negative impact that noxious weed seeds have on his and other local farmers' crops to the Washington County Reserves Coordinating Committee in 2009. He attests that the percentage of contamination in his crops increased dramatically after the urban growth extension was implemented south of West Union Road. ( Coincidentally, the number of dead barn owls he found in the fields also increased as barns (their habitat) were razed after developers bought the land.)

      Hal Brockman, a retired ag specialist (27 years with the USDA), testified to Metro in January, 2010, about the effects of noxious weed seeds coming from previously-farmed fields that were allowed to go fallow.

      Trying to eliminate noxious weed seeds from crops is a frequent topic in farm journals. It keeps seed cleaners in business, such as the seed cleaner located to the south of North Plains. It IS a serious problem to farmers because it is so expensive to mitigate and it directly affects their income.

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    I don't see the disconnect, Mitch. If the several (or singular) factor(s) come together to make it so difficult/impossible to continue to hold the land to farm it, then it fact it forces the sale to a developer. Cherry is right. Its technically correct that it has to be sold in order to have it developed, the policies that push it in that direction can make it inevitable.

    Adjacent land that was once farmed and then sold and allowed to go to weed/seed absolutely changes the complexion for the neighboring landowners. Where before the land was cultivated and kept by a practicing farmer, the new speculating owner does no such work. Thus Cherry's point about the weed/invasive issue is indeed valid. I'm not a farmer, but I am a somewhat high level hobby gardener. I can tell you that it makes a tremendous difference in my own garden when the next door neighbors (or even two or three up the street) don't keep their weeds back. even changes my garden tremendously when they put sunflower seeds or filberts into their bird feeders--instead of shelled seed.

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    Thnanks for writing this Carla. I too can understand the issues regarding invasive weeds. I have livestock on my farm as well as row crops and fight tansy, bull thistle and teasle every year. At lest the bull thistle is edible.

    I think Mitch's idea of decoupling land value assessment for tax purposes, from developed neighboring land values is great. It's something that should be persued, especially if counties actually do value farm land being put to use and actively farmed.

    One issue that people might not have thought about as to the value of farm land, especially that which is suitable for specialty crops like wine grapes, is that certain farming activities can raise the value of the acreage as well. In some prime growing areas, land suitable for vinyards can go for as high as $40,000/acre. At least that's what they said a while back on Joe Dob's wine show on the radio. I was absolutely floored by that.

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    I'm pretty certain that building a patchwork of dams, culverts and other restraining devices in a streambed is anethma to Oregon regulations regarding steam water quality. I know the US army Corps of Engineers would have a problem with it as others have been forced to remove rip-rap and other "improvements" from water course if not properly vetted.

    I'm not agreeing with the stance, just reporting it.

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