PORTLAND — Solar power development on farmland is increasingly raising alarm, potentially leading to new land use restrictions in two Oregon counties.
A growing “cluster” of solar energy sites in Oregon’s Willamette Valley has prompted Yamhill and Marion county governments to consider barring such development on several higher-quality farmland soil classes, said Jim Johnson, land use specialist with the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
Yamhill County is further along with its regulatory proposal, whereas in Marion County it’s just in the discussion phase, he said.
The restrictions would go beyond the current rules established by Oregon’s Land Conservation and Development Commission, which limit solar development on prime farmland to 12 acres.
“We’ve got enough concern for two counties to take this on their own and not wait for LCDC,” Johnson said during a Nov. 28 meeting of the Oregon Board of Agriculture, which advises ODA.
New statewide rules for solar development on farmland are also being considered by LCDC, though the agency is reluctant to announce a time frame for taking action, he said.
If LCDC set a deadline to enact stricter regulations for solar power facilities on farmland, it could result in a “land rush” among developers to seek new sites under the more lenient current rules, Johnson said.
With the upcoming 2018 legislative session, the agency also likely feels that it can’t devote resources to new solar rules in the short term, he said.
Wetlands on farmland are also controversial in Oregon agriculture, with Tillamook County considering a new regulatory approach to such developments.
Oregon lawmakers have allowed Tillamook County to require wetland developments to obtain conditional use permits, whereas conversion of farmland to wetlands is allowed outright elsewhere in the state.
As part of this pilot project, the county may also devise a system to steer wetland development toward certain areas while preserving farmland elsewhere.
Representatives of the agricultural and environmental communities appear to be rethinking their original approach to the problem, said Johnson.
The initial idea was to create a map of areas where wetland development is appropriate, but that concept appears to be falling out of favor, he said.
Tillamook County has some of the best grazing land in the state, so it’s difficult to prioritize certain areas over others, Johnson said.
“It’s just not that clear-cut,” he said.
Instead, stakeholders are moving toward a checklist of factors that would help determine whether a site is appropriate for wetland development on a case-by-case basis, Johnson said.
A potential electrical transmission line in Tillamook County is also worrisome to dairy farmers whose properties it may traverse, he said.
Stray voltage of electricity can be damaging to cattle health, but dairies are also concerned about impediments to aerial spraying and “big gun” field applications of manure, he said.
Short-term rentals of homes through popular online websites such as Airbnb are often blamed for aggravating housing shortages in cities, but the issue is cropping up on farmland as well.
Popular Oregon tourist destinations such as the Hood River Valley and Sauvie Island are increasingly seeing farm dwellings devoted to short-term rentals, Johnson said.
Arguably, such rentals deviate from the approved use of farm dwellings, which are meant to provide housing to farmers and farm workers, not tourists, he said.
While such rentals may encourage agritourism, growers worry about the “tail wagging the dog” — a situation where surrounding agriculture basically provides an excuse for rentals, Johnson said.
The issue has gained enough prominence that it’s likely to spur legislation in 2018 or 2019, he said.
In other board business:
• A year since a state audit criticized the Oregon Department of Agriculture’s backlog of food safety inspections, the agency has reported a major reduction in those overdue inspections.
The backlog has been cut from 2,841 overdue inspections to 739, in part due to an electronic inspection timing system and a reduction of ODA staff time dedicated to federal regulations, according to Alexis Taylor, the agency’s director.
• The board has recommended five farmers to serve on the 12-member commission of the Oregon Agricultural Heritage Program, which is aimed at preserving farmland with easements:
• Doug Krahmer, a blueberry farmer with several operations in Western and Central Oregon.
• Woody Wolfe, a farmer and rancher in Wallowa County who has has established two easements.
• Ken Bailey, a farmer who manages 2,500 acres of fruit orchards in the Columbia Gorge.
• Chad Allen, a dairy farmer from Tillamook County who serves on the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association board.
• Lois Loop, a retired USDA employee who produces grass seed, small grains and clover in Polk County, will serve in a position specializing in agricultural water.
The commission’s remaining seven members will be chosen by Oregon State University, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, the Land Conservation and Development Commission and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board.