Opponents of a proposed landfill expansion in Oregon’s Willamette Valley have gained a powerful ally: the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
The agency has argued against a zoning change that is key to the proposed 37-acre expansion of Waste Management’s Riverbend Landfill in Yamhill County.
“It’s a game changer,” said Ramsey McPhillips, a neighboring landowner and critic of the expansion proposal.
While Yamhill County isn’t bound by the ODA’s opinion, the agency’s view is an important political victory and useful legal weapon in the dispute, he said.
An attorney for the county said the ODA’s opinion will be given “due weight” in the deliberations of its planning commission and board of commissioners.
A spokesperson for Waste Management said the company disagrees with ODA’s analysis, which was laid out in a recent letter to Yamhill County’s planning commission.
“The focus of the letter seems to be misplaced,” said Jackie Lange, Pacific Northwest spokesperson for Waste Management.
To expand the landfill, Yamhill County must first reclassify property owned by Waste Management as farmland, since the “exclusive farm use” zone allows landfills under Oregon law.
Jim Johnson, a land use specialist with ODA, said the property doesn’t qualify for a farmland designation because it’s considered a “dump” under the USDA’s soil classification system — an area with effectively no soil and that doesn’t support vegetation.
The area was also excepted from the statewide land use “goal” of preserving farmland in 1980, and thus would no longer qualify as agricultural land, he said.
“You can’t turn around and say it’s ag land when you said it wasn’t ag land years ago,” Johnson said.
Landfill opponent Ramsey McPhillips said that while landfills are allowed on farmland, it’s not permissible to “game” the system by declaring that non-agricultural land belongs in an “exclusive farm use” zone.
Jackie Lang of Waste Management said that interpretation is incorrect.
“There’s no ambiguity in the statute. Landfills are allowed in the farm zone,” she said. “There are many non-farm uses allowed in the farm zone.”
She also noted that Waste Management has scaled back the expansion to 37 acres, down from the 98-acre increase proposed in an earlier plan that was ultimately scrapped due to an unfavorable Oregon Court of Appeals ruling.
“We’ve been actively engaging the community to get their feedback and develop a plan that is workable for Yamhill County,” Lang said.
McPhillips said he doesn’t expect ODA’s opinion to sway Yamhill County’s board of commissioners, who have previously been highly supportive of the expansion.
However, the ODA’s interpretation will provide legal ammunition during the appeals process that would likely follow the zone change, he said.