Lawmakers ponder ‘primary processing’

Mateusz Perkowski
Proposed legislation in Oregon would clarify what is considered primary processing of wood products. Opponents claim the bill will open the way for industrial uses on forest land.

A dispute over what constitutes “primary processing” of logs has shifted from the courtroom to the Oregon legislature, but it’s unlikely to be resolved during the current session.

The land use controversy involves a log home building company near Sandy, Ore., operated by Mark Fritch on land zoned for timber production.

Under Oregon law, a facility dedicated to the “primary processing” of forest products can operate in such a zone, subject to a conditional use permit by the county.

Neighbors of the log home company complained to Clackamas County about noise, culminating in litigation before the Oregon Court of Appeals.

Last year, Oregon’s Land Use Board of Appeals ruled that the notching, shaping, assembling and disassembling of logs doesn’t qualify as “primary processing.”

Even so, LUBA noted that primary processing “is undefined and the intended scope of that phrase is unclear.”

Fritch challenged the opinion before the Oregon Court of Appeals, but the order was affirmed without comment in late January.

Fritch now wants the Oregon legislature to pass a bill, SB 1575, that would specify which operations are considered “primary processing,” including those needed to build log homes.

“We create a building material from raw logs,” he said during a Feb. 13 hearing on the legislation.

Fritch said the site of the operation allows him to buy logs locally. They are then hand-peeled, pre-assembled  and taken apart for shipping.

The company must pre-assemble the logs to know where to cut notches, but the operation isn’t akin to building mobile homes, he said.

Legislation is needed to clarify allowable activities not just for Fritch but for other companies that operate in forest zones, said Dave Hunnicutt, president of the Oregonians in Action property rights non-profit group.

“We continually talk in this building to help rural Oregon, but when it comes to moving bills that help rural Oregon, they fall by the wayside,” Hunnicutt said.

Some neighbors of the log home company testified against the legislation, arguing that LUBA and the Oregon Court of Appeals made the right decision.

“Putting manufacturing and industrial uses in a timber zone is not a good idea,” said Dan Mench, a Clackamas County resident.

Continuous log home construction isn’t comparable to logging, in which periods of activity are separated by decades while the trees regrow, Mench said.

Cities in forested areas like Sandy and Estacada are better equipped with fire hydrants and other facilities to accommodate industrial uses, he said.

“This is a blindsiding of the local community,” Mench said.

It does makes sense to provide a more thorough definition of “primary processing,” but the issue is “very complex,” said Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, chair of the Senate Committee on Rural Communities and Economic Development, which is considering the bill.

Roblan said he’s inclined to form a work group to discuss the “primary processing” definition and make recommendations for the 2015 legislative session.

Hunnicutt said the uncertainty about primary processing “creates chaos” and is unlikely to fade away.

“This issue is going to come back in 2015,” he said.