Wetland restoration projects on farmland will have to clear a new hurdle in Oregon’s Tillamook County to ensure they don’t disrupt agricultural practices.
However, the county’s newly enacted ordinance isn’t expected to block wetland projects as much as steer them to the least-contentious areas, experts say.
“Nobody’s intention was that we never see another wetland project in Tillamook,” said Mary Anne Nash, public policy counsel for the Oregon Farm Bureau.
Landowners throughout most of Oregon are allowed outright to convert properties in “exclusive farm use” zones into wetlands, allowing them to sell credits to offset development on wetlands elsewhere.
Wetland restoration projects have been prominent in Tillamook County, where moist conditions are prevalent, but the conversions have also been controversial.
In some cases, opponents criticize such projects for taking farmland out of production.
Restoring wetlands by removing levees or making other land modifications can also reduce drainage and increase groundwater tables on surrounding properties, impairing their agricultural value, said Nash.
“In our mind, this is like any other non-farm use moving into a farm zone,” she said.
In 2016, Oregon lawmakers considered a bill that would increase local government scrutiny of wetland projects across the state. Ultimately, the legislation — Senate Bill 1517 — was approved after being pared down to only affect Tillamook County.
Tillamook County’s commissioners have decided to take advantage of that statute by enacting the recent ordinance, under which wetland projects will be subject to a “conditional use” review.
Before such permits are approved or denied, the parties involved could go through a “collaborative process” to resolve potential conflicts.
Farm and conservation groups will also be helping to create an “inventory” of Tillamook County’s wetlands and areas where such projects might be suitable.
The inventory will be useful in guiding wetland projects away from “hot spots” where they’re likely to clash with neighboring farmers, said Nash.
The new approach to wetland siting in Tillamook County is currently a pilot project that’s set to expire after 10 years.
However, it could eventually serve as a model for the rest of the state if Tillamook County’s ordinance is deemed a success, said Nash.
For that to happen, the ordinance will need to “take the heat down” on controversies over wetland projects without effectively prohibiting them, she said.
Tillamook County’s ordinance will add another layer of complexity to wetland restoration, but responsible project developers should take impacts on neighbors into account, said Lisa Phipps, executive director of the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership, a local conservation nonprofit.
The processes required by the county will “codify” what wetland project developers are already doing, she said.
“What you don’t want to see is people using that to just stop projects,” Phipps said.
While the “devil is in the details,” Phipps said she’s hopeful the ordinance won’t serve as a disincentive to wetland restoration.
The inventory process could produce a “win-win” situation for farmers and conservationists if they can identify lower-quality farmlands that can be converted into wetlands while actually helping surrounding growers, she said.
For example, properties in low-lying areas near the Tillamook Bay can better filter bacteria and runoff if they’re turned into wetlands, while potentially improving drainage on upland farms, Phipps said.
“A lot of these lands were wetlands at one time,” she said.