A proposal to give local governments more control over farm-to-wetland conversions has gained traction in the Oregon Senate, although in scaled-back form.
Under the original language of Senate Bill 1517, Oregon farms could not be converted into wetlands unless the local county government agreed the change wouldn’t disrupt nearby agricultural operations.
The scope of the bill has now been narrowed to a pilot project in Tillamook County, which needs to preserve farmland for its dairy industry and is a “big center of the most pressing issues” involving wetland conversions, said Mary Anne Nash, public policy counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau, which supports SB 1517.
This amended version of SB 1517 will soon be up for a vote on the Senate floor after having passed the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources on Feb. 11 by a 3-1 margin.
However, some of the committee’s members expressed misgivings about the bill’s reduced scope.
While Tillamook County certainly needs the pilot program, farmers elsewhere in Oregon also experience problems created by wetland conversions, said Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls.
“It’s distressing to know the rest of the state won’t be able to protect themselves from being flooded out by a rampant neighbor,” he said.
These concerns were echoed by Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, who voted against the bill because the issue is statewide, as well as Sen. Alan Olsen, who voted in favor of SB 1517 despite wanting “to see this go further.”
Wetlands are currently allowed outright in Oregon farm zones, but Senate Bill 1517 would first require Tillamook County to consider whether new wetlands will significantly change local farm practices or disrupt agriculture.
Wetland developers could also opt to undergo a “collaborative process” with concerned stakeholders instead of the regular county conditional use permit process.
The Oregon Farm Bureau supported a change in land use rules for wetlands because the current approach doesn’t provide farmers with a “meaningful opportunity” to weigh in on such projects, said Nash.
Farmers cited numerous problems created by wetlands during earlier hearings on the original version of SB 1517.
Wetlands can increase the frequency of flooding and impede the drainage of nearby farmland, as well as attract birds and noxious weeds to an area, according to growers who support the proposal.
Joe Rocha, who farms near the Tillamook Bay, said the changes in hydrology can kill grasses that dairies depend on for feed.
“They brought the saltwater closer to us,” he said.
Kathy Hadley, a farmer in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, said a 500-acre wetland bordering her property increases erosion during the wet season and attracts elk that damage fences.
Such problems can discourage potential buyers when farmers are looking to sell property, said Sharon Waterman, whose farm in Coos County is near a 400-acre wetland.
“Can we even sell our property? I don’t know,” she said.
Supporters of the bill emphasized that it would not block wetland conversions, but would enable a collaborative process in how they’re sited and designed.
“This bill allows rural Oregon and local governments to have a say in what happens in their communities,” said Mark Labhart, a Tillamook County commissioner.